Revisiting an old friend: The Rush Hour Run

As mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been running much since cycling season started; when I do run, I’ve been trying to run trails as much as possible. However, that isn’t how I got started. My first runs were all on the treadmill at the gym (using the Couch25k program on my iPod). Eventually, I joined a half- and full-marathon training group, and that’s when I started running on pavement. Most of our long runs used trails like the Perkiomen Trail (which has both gravel and paved sections), the Schuylkill River Trail and the paved loop at Valley Forge National Historic Park. All of my first races were on pavement: from my first 5k (hosted by the Pottstown YMCA) to the ten-mile Broad Street Run to my first half-marathon in Philadelphia, I either ran on paved paths or on the road.

My second 5k was the Rush Hour Run, which is hosted every year by SEI to benefit local charities. The race is an out-and-back on the Perkiomen Trail, which is right behind the SEI campus. The first time I ran this race, the draw for me was that it was local, it was a familiar path, and many of the folks I’d gotten to know through the training group would be there. As I found out that first year, the real draw is the post-race party, which features beer, cocktails and all manner of tasty treats from local restaurants and caterers.

I’ve done the race every year since then, and this year was no exception. Even though my running frequency is way down since cycling season began — and even though I had been knocked down with a pretty nasty cold and was still struggling with breathing difficulty and a cough the day of the race — I’d be lying if I said I went into it with no expectations. Sure, I told myself I’d do run/walk intervals based on “whenever I cough”. I told myself I’d go easy. I told myself (and my friends, and my boyfriend) that I wouldn’t overdo it. I told myself.

But there was something lingering in the back of my head, something I tried not to acknowledge: the way I’d felt the last time I’d gone running, the week before I got sick. The way the first mile flew by and how I’d forced myself to slow down for the second mile. Forced myself to take walk breaks because that’s what I do. I’ve been using run/walk intervals of varying measures since 2010. It’s part of my mindset. But even as I took walk breaks that day, I just felt fast. As I neared the end point of my run, I glanced down at my watch and realized that I was almost at a 5k distance … and my time was under 30 minutes. Have I mentioned that I’m not a fast runner? I’m not even a little bit fast. My fastest official 5k was a smidge over 31 minutes.

So, at this year’s Rush Hour Run, of course I told myself I’d take it easy. Of course, I told myself I’d listen to my lungs and my body and walk as soon as the exertion brought on the horrible, wracking cough again. I placed myself way at the back of the pack on purpose, intending to stick myself behind someone running at an easy pace and let them set my pace for me.

 

The race starts out down a slight grade, exiting the rear of SEI’s campus and down the short stretch of Upper Indian Head Road to turn right onto the Perkiomen Trail. From there, the trail is mostly flat — there’s a short, steep incline where the trail rises above the Perkiomen Creek to meet the parking lot at New Mill Road, then a gentle decline after the soccer fields. There’s a water station at the turn-around, and then you return to SEI, with the finish line on the trail before Upper Indian Head Road (so there’s no charging uphill to the finish).

I started out nice and easy on the descent to the trail, and it felt too easy. My lungs seemed to open up almost as soon as I started moving, and my breathing felt easier and easier — better than it had all week! After we turned onto the trail, I tried to ease my pace back a little and take it easy, but found it frustrating and soon began to pass people. At one point, I looked for my long-legged, fleet-footed boyfriend, who had been running right at my side, and discovered he was 30 feet or so behind me. I knew he would have no problem catching me if he wanted to, so I kept moving up. I’d pass a gaggle of people, then settle in behind someone to pace myself — but I’d soon find myself running too close to their heels, and would peel off to the left edge of the pavement to pass. Before too long, the lead runners were on their way back, flying down the left side of the pavement, and I started using the grassy verge to the right of the pavement to pass.

I took a walk break at the water station and walked the turn-around while drinking a cup of water, then got myself going again. My boyfriend had caught up to me again, and commented that we were “doing really good”, and I just had to grin. Good? I was breathing! I was running! It was AWESOME!

About a quarter-mile before the finish, it was my boyfriend’s turn to leave me behind. He kicked into high gear — I don’t seem to have that extra gear when it comes to running — and crossed the finish line well ahead of me. The digital readout at the finish line said 29:4something as I crossed, and I knew my chip time would be less, since I had been way at the back of the pack when the gun went off. My official chip time was 29:19, and my boyfriend’s was 29:01.

One of the reasons I come back to this race year after year, aside from how they spoil us after the run, is because it’s become a good touchstone for me. This is the only race I’ve done every single year, from my first year running, and I’ve never missed it. I’ve shaved at least a little time off every year, so it’s become a marker of my progress. And, now that I’m not training for distance, my results in the shorter races are improving more dramatically. Don’t get me wrong — I am still firmly in the middle of the field at best when it comes to my age group. But placing isn’t a thing that has ever mattered to me — the only person I really want to beat is myself, and I am happy with my consistent improvement at this annual race.

A Runner Once Again

I didn’t do much running over the summer. Initially, when I started cycling (in early April, bundled up, braving capricious Spring weather), the days were still short (and chilly) enough that most rides were short. I was only getting out a couple times a week, and would run at least once — usually twice — during the week and again over the weekend.

As we moved into summer, my tendency to hyper-focus really came to bear, and cycling became all there was. Longer rides, more frequent rides; I could go a whole week or even two without running. In the month leading up the Century ride, I think I ran once. On the one hand, it might have been better to run more, and have more cross-training; but if there’s one thing I learned from being sick so much last year, it’s that I need to give myself ample recovery time. Instead of cross-training with running, I alternated between cycling days, yoga and rest.

After the century ride, however, I wanted to get back to running. I knew I wouldn’t ride outdoors once the temperatures got below about 55 — lack of daylight aside, I just don’t deal well with cold when most of my body is still, as it is when cycling. Running keeps me significantly warmer, so I decided that I’d put the bike away for the winter and focus on running.

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that the transition back to running would actually be a little on the difficult side. After all, I had no problem transitioning from running to cycling. But suddenly, I found myself a significantly slower runner — not that I’d ever qualified as “fast”, but it felt like my first year of running all over again. My heart rate went up noticeably faster during running than it did while cycling, and I had to take more frequent walk breaks. Last year, I was regularly breaking the 10-minute per mile pace, and now I’m closer to 11:30 per mile and just trying to work on consistency before I worry about speed.

And yet … it still feels good to be running again. When I can get past my frustration at being slower, I fall into the rhythm of running and lose myself. This is a particularly pretty time of year in my area, and when I’m running on a local trail or at a park, I can take the time to look around and enjoy the scenery in a way that I don’t get to do as much on the bike, as I whiz quickly past idyllic farms and maneuver in traffic through town.

I’ve set myself some good running challenges this year; my main goal is to focus on trail running as much as possible. I’ve done a lot of running on roads and the paved paths in the area in the past (such as the Perkiomen Trail and the Schuylkill River Trail), so it’s time to switch focus and learn a new style of running.

I tend to register for races as a way of setting goals and monitoring progress. My first race this fall was a 5k on the rolling roads of Collegeville in late October. The following week, I stacked myself up with a double-header (which is what happens when I can’t make up my mind WHICH race I should do); I ran a 5-miler on the Green Ribbon Trail on Saturday, then ran a road 10k (Run the Bridge) the following day. I was happy with my times at both events, especially considering they were my longest recent runs, and I gave myself very little rest between them.

Coming up next, I have runs with a local trail-running group (Misery Loves Company), and will supplement the runs I attend with them with my own sprint workouts and strength training (and yoga! Mustn’t forget the yoga). My major goal races are still months away, and will cause some interesting overlaps with Spring and Summer cycling, so in addition to challenging myself to more trail running, I’ll need to start challenging myself to a better cross-training routine.

Thinking that far ahead makes it feel a little daunting. What it really all comes down to is that I found new things to love about cycling over the summer, and I’m again finding new things to love about running right now. Finding a way to balance these two pursuits so that I can enjoy both and stay healthy will be the real goal, rather than setting any specific race times.

Running in the heat

My area is under a heat advisory, with temperatures in the 90’s today, and even higher temperatures predicted for tomorrow. Many of my fellow runners are taking their weekday runs to the treadmill, or running very early in the morning or late at night to avoid the heat. I’ve been hearing lots of dire warnings about the heat; as someone who has transplanted from the humid east to the desert southwest and back again, I am starting to feel like some of those warnings are a little too strident.

Yes, we need to be careful when there is extreme heat. This is what I mean by “careful”:

  • hydrate all day, not just during or after our runs
  • consider a shorter distance and a slower pace, maybe even some run/walk intervals
  • avoid working out at the peak of the day’s heat, or at high noon with unrelenting sun. (Note: peak heat of the day during the summer is usually somewhere between 2-5pm.)

But we also need to get acclimated to the heat! We aren’t always going to have ideal conditions on race day; my first long race, the 2010 Broad Street Run in Philadelphia, had a record high of 94 degrees. I wasn’t ready for those temperatures in May; who could be? That said, we can use the early summer days to begin acclimating to the heat. For those of us training for Fall races, some of our long runs are going to be on hot days; waiting for the perfect weather just isn’t going to be an option. Doing all of our training indoors, on the treadmill, is not only boring but is simply not effective for race-day preparation. We need to build up our ability to handle the hot temperatures.

Most of us live in air-conditioned homes, work in air-conditioned offices, and travel in air-conditioned vehicles (guilty!). While this heat wave is significant, especially considering how early in the season it comes, we will have more hot days ahead. Even if all you do is go for a leisurely walk, get out and get at least SOME movement on the days you’re scheduled to run. You’ll get used to the heat, and you will learn how it makes you feel and how your body reacts to heat — a good thing to know as the runs get longer and the summer stays hot!

The most important thing in all of this, as during any workout, is to listen to your body. Pay close attention to how you feel; light-headedness, dizziness or nausea are warning signs of dehydration or a possible electrolyte imbalance.