Monday, April 27, 2015

Boston Marathon, 2015

I almost did not go.  

I was on the fence up until the moment we got into the car.

At 5 pm Saturday I called and canceled my room in Framingham for that night.  I needed one more day at home to get myself organized, literally and emotionally.

I had a hard time last year when deciding if I would go back.

In 2013 I had just left the finish area only minutes before the explosions. I did not see anyone get hurt.  It was still a very traumatic experience. 

In 2014, I believed that if I went back, I would create a new set of memories to erase the stress and fear I have mentally connected to the race.  

Last year, I experienced a lot of anxiety from March through April. Ultimately I did go and I finished.  It was safe and emotional.  At the time, I felt that I had achieved some closure.

But it snuck up on me this year. 

An almost imperceptible, creeping, growing fear over a month before the race.  My brain felt like mush. I had trouble making sense of why I felt a little scrambled in my day-to-day life.  I was stressed out at a subconscious level.  I was exhausted.  I wasn't sleeping well.  I had a very low desire to train.  My mileage dropped and my long runs were pushed off and rescheduled.  I was having low-grade fevers day after day.  I even called out from work which I never do.  For weeks this went on…

I had not read a single email from the BAA except the ones that asked me to update something.  I did not open my acceptance letter. I had forgotten where I put that passport and welcome packet.  I had made no connection between my avoidance of all things Boston and my distress about going back until I saw the Guilty Decision on TV and realized I wasn't sure I was able to go back.  I was very concerned about whether someone upset about the decision might retaliate at the race.

I had avoided everything Boston including preparing for it.  My lack of prep was not all stress-related.  I needed to use my Spring for other priorities. If this was any other race I would not have gone. But, with 12 days to go and nothing longer than a 14 miler or two under me, I made a decision:  Either I run 20 miles and then go to Boston or I fail to complete the 20 miles and I stay home on Patriot's Day.

Enzo and Piper at the Hotel
I woke up with a fever. Took the day off from work, disappointed that I didn't even have a chance to get my 20...  Finally at 6 pm, still disappointed, I got on my treadmill just to run as much as I could.  I put on a movie ("Unbroken") and started to run, planning to stop when I had enough….

20 miles later in 8:10 pace I stopped and decided that despite my fears, it was clear that in my heart I NEEDED to go back to Boston.

Sunday morning, after a few miles with the dogs, we loaded them into the car and drove 5+ hours to the Expo.  I waited until about 9 pm to get my gear organized.  I didn't check the weather until the next morning when I got up at 6:15 am.

Weather was not going to be great, but I have run in everything.  I don't look at the specific weather details anymore except for the night before and the morning of races. This removes it as a stressor for me.  I have a general idea of what to expect each season. I have gear for everything. I did check the weather in the morning and saw that the rain would come at 12 noon.  I was concerned that I may have overdressed, which is funny in hindsight.

Running to the Start

Rather than ride busses with the masses to the start, I ran 3.6 miles to the start.  As a sole runner on a quiet course, I finally started to feel at peace. I ran up the street, thanking the Military and Police who were already on duty very early in the morning. I thanked the Volunteers who were setting up the aid stations for elites and for the rest of us. Armored cars patrolled.  As I got t the starting area, I was wanded before being permitted to pass. Spectators were wanded by the metal detector as well.  Officers with bomb sniffing dogs were plentiful.

Sherry volunteering at M2 Aid Station
I decided to not go to the Athlete's Village.  Last year, once in the Village, we were not permitted to leave. I didn't like the idea of not being allowed out.  I felt claustrophobic and trapped.  So this year, I opted to stand out in the rain for hours in order to avoid being locked in to a gated field with 30,000 other anxious runners.  This was a good decision for me.

I was freezing cold once the rain came at 8:15 am. I had over 2 hours to wait outside and nothing to help me warm up. I thought the rain would come at noon, so I did not bring a poncho.  I had a baseball cap.  It was cold.  Someone gave me a plastic garbage bag and saved my morning. That bag helped me stay warm as the cold winds came after the brief rain stopped.

I spent the morning standing, actually standing, around in a garbage bag, people watching.  The mobility impaired, wheelchair, and hand cycle athletes were lined up and sent off.  The elite ladies lined up, and send off for their turn.  I took a seat next to and chatted with a man name Todd who has now run 30 Bostons.  It was a special place to be. It felt like I was at a small local 400 person race.

Runners in the first wave were remarkably different than runners in the second.  Wave 1 runners arrived in singlets and shorts, created an impromptu warm up loop on a side street and ran laps and laps and laps to stay warm… There was a lot of runners grabbing onto trees or poles and swinging their legs dynamically.  Many did strides and form drills.  Everyone had a different technique.  I also noticed A LOT of Mohawks.

Wave 2, the rest of my wave, arrived after the high energy underdressed pre-warmed were sent off on foot to Boston.  Wave 2 were much more laid back. Not as many warm up laps. Not as many drills or special magical pre-race routines. Not a many Mohawks.  Much fewer nasal strips.  Fewer singlets and short shorts. Rather than getting warmed up, Wave 2 runners seemed to prioritize Staying Warm.  Sweat-suited and plastic wrapped runners filed in to their corrals and waited until the last second to ditch their throw away clothes, just before the signal to start.

My Race:
I obviously had low expectations. I had a fantastic qualifying time with a 3:11, but I failed to do it justice.  I could feel the hills on my warm up run to the start and knew that miles 16-21 would simply destroy me today.  I was not going to survive running the entire race, so I decided to get a good start and then try to settle in until the hills.

Before the Rain (Photo by Michele Hudak)
The first few miles were wonderful. The rain had not yet come. I pulled off my arm warmers and tied them around my waist pack rather than tossing them to the side. I was running mid-7:00's to sub-8 minute pace and it felt very good and quiet easy.  A downhill start will do that.  I knew it would not last but I was Happy for the first time in over a month and it felt great.  I wasn't here to run a great race or a smart race … I was here to have fun and get to the finish.

I think the most impressive part of this year's Boston was the fact that once the rain came, the spectators seemed unfazed.  They stood there in the rain, screaming for us.

After a fast 5k, I slowed down a bit…but the descent and the crowds inspired fast turnover with effortless breathing.  At 10k I was almost starting to feel convinced I might run a lot better than I expected.

But the hard rain started, the wind was obvious, and my legs were started to feel the miles.   I hit the half marathon much faster than I expected.

Before hitting Mile 16, where the hills begin, I could feel my hamstrings getting very tired.  My hands were freezing despite my gloves. It was raining hard, but I almost didn't notice the rain. It was the wind that was chilling me to the bone.

Up ahead I notice someone running, then walking, and holding her hip… then running again strong, only to stop and hold her hip again.  I felt her pain.  It was too early to feel this bad.  I was running out of steam as well.  Even with her walking, it was still hard to catch her.  Just before Mile 18 I did.

In my waste pack, I had a few things I thought I might need.  My phone to call Sid to get me when I got back to Hopkinton, my ID, some cash, and two Excedrine in case something got painful and I needed something to help me continue on.  I didn't need the Excedrine.  So I offered them to the girl holding her hip.

She said she was thinking about quitting and she had never dropped out of a race ever.  I told her we were doing well still and if we just kept going we could come in between 3:40-3:50… Together we ran the next 8 miles, she seemed grateful for some company.  I know I was.

The hills really aren't that bad if you have trained for them. But since I had not trained, my legs were toast by the summit of Heartbreak.  By Mile 21, Alex felt better and was now encouraging me the rest of the way in.  Once I slowed down, I became very cold. I tried to pull my arm warmers back on but they were soaking wet and my fingers were so numb and painful that I could not feel what I was doing.  It felt like an impossible task.

As I attempted to pick up my pace I saw a woman holding a sign "Pain is just…. French for Bread" and it made me laugh so hard I forgot I was cold.  All I could think about was that 4 pack of Hawaiian Sweet Rolls in the food packet the runners get at the finish line.  I was going to eat them all as soon as I had the chance.

Despite the slow pace, the cold wind and rain, and the increasing tightness of my hamstring during the final miles, I still absolutely had a fantastic experience.

When I left for the race, I was pretty sure I would end up running about 4 hours and came in at 3:50.

This is fair. I worked so incredibly hard for my 3:11. I trained with dedication and commitment. I ran Long Runs and Speed Work.  I sleep well. I ate well. I let nothing get in my way.  I had a pace plan and stuck with it.  I worked hard.  I was ready and it paid off.  When you do the work, running gives you the chance to shine… but it doesn't work the other way.  Running doesn't give anyone more than they deserve.

As we crossed the finish line, Alex and I followed the line of people shuffling through.  It was so cold and so windy.  We eventually got out heat-shield capes. Someone asked me a question. I turned to answer them.  

When I turned back, all I saw was a sea of hooded, mylar-caped zombies. Alex was somewhere in there, but I lost her.  I looked around to make sure she was gone.  I wanted to thank he again for her company.  When I was certain I was not going to find her, I made my way out of the finish area and onto a bus to wherever it was taking the runners on board.  And as soon as I sat down, I texted Sid and ate all four wonderfully sweet Hawaiian Rolls.

Finish Time 3:50

Saturday, April 4, 2015

How Recovery Running Helps Us Run Faster

Here is a copy of my most recent article submitted to the Clifton Road Runners Monthly Newsletter!

If you reside in New Jersey and would like to become a member of Clifton Road Runners, please visit this website for more information about how you can join my team: 

Why Recovery Running is NECESSARY to Help Us Run Faster
by Shannon McGinn, Certified Distance Running Coach
April 2015

     Many people find it difficult to train at Recovery Pace. They fear that slow running is not going to help them run faster.  I get it.  When we have only a limited amount of time to train, it becomes imperative that we get the most out of it.  Pushing ourselves as much as possible seems to be the best way to get faster.  Some consider slow running “Junk” and would rather rest completely than waste their time. I want to explain how slow mileage is actually necessary to help us run our best.

  We should first clarify what Junk Miles are. The term Junk comes from the idea that we only need a certain amount of quality training to optimize our fitness gains. Any additional mileage over that optimal personalized amount causes unnecessary strain on the body and is deemed Junk. In theory this makes sense. Train only as much as we need to maximize our potential. Anything more than “just enough” will increase risk while providing no additional gains. The problem with this theory is that most runners do not actually train anywhere near that tipping point. 

  Even though some may argue that slow paced running has little value, “Junk” does not actually refer to slow-paced running. The terms describes Moderate-to-Fast paced running that is neither easy enough to help recovery nor fast enough to trigger adaptation. This “no man’s land” training pace just so happens to be the bread-and-butter of many recreational runners who can’t figure out why they are not able to get faster. Ironically, slowing down some training mileage may be exactly what is needed in order to run faster when it matters most. The problem I think many have with accurately identifying Junk begins with the difficulty runners have with identifying or accepting their optimal training paces.   

One you understand how recovery running serves a very specific and necessary purpose in a balanced plan, you will be on your way to becoming a faster you!  A balanced plan should contain varied paced training runs. Fast Workouts should comprise a small percentage of training mileage, about 10-25%. Long Runs should be about  30%. This means the remaining 50% of training mileage should be Easy or Very Easy.  Look at your log.  Do you run easy about 50% of the time?  I know I do!

When I start with new runners, there is resistance to slowing down. Most need a lot of convincing to run their slow days as slow as I ask them to. To help set minds at ease, we need to know that the most successful runners include recovery running in their training.  

Steve Magness, a runner, a coach, an exercise physiologist, and the author of The Science of Running has done plenty of research on this subject.  He discovered that the early morning training runs of Elite Kenyan runners were done at 9-10 minutes per mile.  So lets think about this. Elites who can run sub-5 minute pace for the marathon find it necessary to include some training at TWICE their race pace.  Meanwhile, many recreational runners will insist mileage is useless if the pace is one or two minutes per mile slower than their current or projected marathon race pace.
After stressing the body with a hard workout we must understand that it is only during rest that the body can heal and become stronger. If you run too hard day after day, adaption simply can not occur.  Runners either fail to improve or they end up burned out or injured. 

     Understanding how the body fuels itself is also important. The body uses glycogen to fuel the faster workouts. Glycogen is fast efficient fuel but it can take more than 24 hours and sometimes up to 72 hours to fully replenish. Train hard day after day, depleting your glycogen store more and more, and eventually your body will have no choice but to find alternate fuel sources. In extreme situations, to fuel your workouts the body will need to break down muscle structures, like enzymes or mitochondria, which are the very same things that we are trying to build up to in order run faster. (See Magness). This result is actually worse than diminishing returns. It is a Negative Return, as training more make us less fit.
Whereas faster running is fueled by glycogen, slower running is fueled by fat.  This means we can still restore glycogen while training, but only if we train at a slow enough pace. The slower the pace, the more fat is burned and the less glycogen is used. 

     Although complete rest would be the fastest way to restore glycogen, it is not the fastest way to fully recover.  Slow running can speed up recovery by increasing circulation of blood to areas that need to heal while also helping to circulate out waste. This explain why elite runners report feeling better after a slow day of running than after a complete day off. 

Other benefits include weight management and stress management.  Running burns .63 calories  x your weight in pounds no matter if run fast or slow, so slow running helps to keep us lean. Running helps many of us maintain peace of mind. Fast running may feel amazing, but slow running is better than no running when running is being used to manage stress.  Complete rest does not offer any of those benefits. 

     Once a runner realizes that (1) daily moderate-to-fast paced training is actually holding them back by delaying adaptation and/or pushing them into negative returns and (2) appropriate amounts of easy running will speed recovery, speed adaptation and allow them to train harder on the hard days, those who called slow running “Junk” will suddenly realize they had things backwards all along. 

Practical Application: When following a plan, pay attention to which days are characterized as Rest, Recovery, or Easy Days. In my practice, I use the term General Maintenance and Recovery to identify easy day.  These easy days can not be run too slow but they can be run too fast.  

      When trying to identify your appropriate recovery pace, aim for at least 60-120 seconds slower than your current marathon race pace (not your goal marathon pace). You can use a Finish Time Predictor Calculator find your projected marathon time from a recent race result.  One you see how slow you should train on easy days and realize about 50% of your training can be easy, savor those days. Find a friend who will slower with you.  Enjoy the scenery.  Take your time.  Appreciate running without pressure to perform. Consider the Recovery Run a gift as well as the secret to fast racing while maintaining longevity in our sport.
Read more from Steve Magness here:

Finish Time Predictor Calculator here:


Shannon McGinn is an RRCA Certified Distance Running Coach and the owner of Creating Momentum, LLC.  She is a life-long runner, becoming more involved in racing after surviving cancer.  She considers herself a marathon and ultramarathon specialist, earning several USATF National Championship top 10 or better placements in the 50k and 50M distances. She has not missed a day of running since December 2011. Please feel free to send any questions about this article to