Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Big Things Ahead

I'm taking a short break from my race recap extravaganza to share some big news.

Are you ready for this? Because I'm not.

I'm running the Chicago Marathon on October 9, 2016!

I think I just died a little by typing that. I'm seriously freaking out. I'm terrified of this race, and I'm worried that I've made a huge mistake, which is why I've waited so long to publicly say anything. Training started at the beginning of June, and my level of fear continues to grow a little each week. Basically, this is my schedule until October:

Monday - Rest/Stretch
Tuesday - Easy Run/Hills
Wednesday - Cross Train
Thursday - Speedwork
Friday - Cross Train
Saturday - Easy Run
Sunday - Long Run

Wish me luck!

Oh, and if I don't make it out this alive, then please tell my cat that I loved her.

Monday, June 27, 2016

2016 Run for the Zoo 5k Recap

The Run for the Zoo was one of the races last year that I had decided I didn't need to run again. Then, they offered a really good discount and waived sign up fees at another race earlier this year, and I totally got suckered into registering. 

Note to self - discounts don't mean you have to buy things. Learn to say, "No."

So...yeah...I signed up for the race again. With the race falling one week after the Soldier Field 10 Mile and one week before the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay, I at least had the presence of mind to choose the 5k instead of the 10k.

The zebra didn't care what race I ran. He was too busy thinking deep thoughts.
This year, packet pick up was held outside the zoo for several days leading up to the race instead of at the New Balance store (the store is, quite frankly, too small to host a race packet pick up). Packet pick up was also available the morning of the race for anyone who couldn't make it on any of the earlier days. I headed over to the zoo before work one day, arriving right around the opening of packet pick up for the day. 

The packet pick up tent was easy enough to identify, but, even though there were only two other people in line, I had to stand around for quite a while before getting my packet. Apparently, the woman who arrived just before me had some sort of problem with either her bib number or shirt, and it took all four volunteers working the 5k pick up to help her sort it out. The 10k volunteers weren't busy, but they made it quite clear that they were only able to help folks running the 10k and continued to sit and watch the turmoil unfold in next to them as the 5k pick up came to halt with every volunteer trying to help the same person. There was another volunteer behind the counter not doing anything, but they said that they couldn't help me because they were assigned to shirts. 

It was a bit surreal and one of the longest waits I've ever experienced at packet pick up for a race, as I watched four volunteers help one person and a handful of other volunteers do nothing to help the only other person in line (that would be me). Once I finally had my packet, I had to hail a cab in order to make it to work.

This year's shirt - I like the animal foot prints and wish they had been more incorporated into the design.
Long story short, packet pick up was a mess. Perhaps my mistake was showing up so early on the first day of pick up and they just hadn't found their groove, yet? I hope they found a way to make things a bit more streamlined. It wasn't the best first impression, and I found myself starting to worry a little about what race day had in store.

Last year's race was a bit of a mess. Packet pick up and gear check were ridiculous, there was little to no support on the course, and it just generally felt unorganized and rushed. I was a little worried that I was in for the same experience this year. 

Race morning dawned to beautiful weather. It was warm but wasn't expected to get too hot, and there was a nice breeze blowing. It looked to be a good day for a race!

A gorgeous day in Chicago!
I made sure to arrive early, after last year's long lines for bathrooms and gear check. I made a quick tour of the site, noting gear check, the start line, finish line, and all the post race goodies (hello, beer area). They had indoor bathrooms available at the big cat house, which was opened early for the race, as well as port-o-potties stations around the starting area. This was a nice change from last year, and I never had to wait in line for a bathroom either before or after the race.

Lincoln Park Zoo's west gate.
As soon as I entered the big cat house, I was struck by all sorts of conflicting emotions. I have serious misgivings about zoos and putting animals on display for the amusement of us humans. Don't get me wrong, I go to the zoo and enjoy seeing the animals. Many zoos do a lot of amazing conservation work and provide valuable educational resources. 

This doesn't change the fact that it is incredibly depressing seeing a majestic animal in a tiny cage.

This is one of the problems I have with the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is a historic zoo. But with that historic status comes a lot of out dated, tiny, and sad exhibit halls. I know that the zoo keepers genuinely care about and even love the animals that they are tasked with caring for, and they are doing the best that they can with the space they have, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps your zoo shouldn't have big cats or other large animals if you can't provide them with adequate space. 

Seriously, this guy was depressing. He was pacing and just seemed so sad. The enclosures in the big cat house are just too small for the animals that they house.
Sorry. I'll step off my soap box. I just spent the whole day reminding myself about the conservation work that the zoo does in an effort to justify its existence.

Back to the race. After my pit stop, I headed over to gear check, which was right by the start line. Thankfully, they seemed to have gotten the message that gear check needed some work, as this year gear check was larger, better staffed, and much more organized. Bags were labeled with each runners' bib number and hung up in rows that were assigned by number and distance (5k or 10k). There was none of last year's throwing bags on the ground in a big pile.

After dropping off my bag, I found myself with a little extra time on my hands. I walked around, made one more pit stop, and stretched. Finally, it was time to start lining up. The 5k timed run would be starting first at 7:45am, then the 10k would follow at 8:30am.

They planned a wave start and would release runners every couple of minutes based on estimated pace and had pace markers along the road so that runners could seed themselves, as corrals were not assigned. Even with the wave start, I began to prepare myself for a lot of weaving, which always happens when corrals are self seeded. The 5k had two options, timed or untimed (those who opted for the "fun run/walk" saved a little money as they didn't have timing chips, while those of us running the timed race did). Those who opted not to run for time were repeatedly encouraged to start at the back of the pack, as were those running with strollers, as the path was quite narrow in places. Finally, there were multiple announcements that anyone planning to walk the 5k needed to start in the very last corral.

There were the usual pre race announcements, the national anthem, and one final plea for walker to move to the last 5k corral and then the race official began. After my numerous problems experience running in the past month (numb feet, painful calves, various stomach issues) I had left my watch at home and planned to run by feel, so I lined up at the front of the 10 minute per mile corral, as that would be a nice and easy pace for me for the distance, even if I once again experienced the pain that I had recently come to associate with running.

It took a long time for my corral to get close enough to see the start line.
As soon as I was across the start line, the game of weaving began. As expected, too many runners either didn't know their pace or just didn't care about lining up correctly and too many walkers just didn't want to wait to start and decided to line up in the first couple of corrals instead of the last. I've grown accustomed to a lot of weaving for the first bit of every self seeded race, but on this day I encountered big groups of walkers throughout the race, and the weaving just never stopped until the final half mile or so.

Mile one seemed to fly by, as we headed through the zoo and out to the harbor. The path through the zoo was pretty narrow in places, making it difficult to pass slower runners and walkers, and the path was also a bit slick, so it was exactly a bit of relief when we switched over to the dirt path. Yes, there were some puddles to dodge and the path was a bit uneven, but I wasn't as concerned about slipping and fallen as I ran.

There was one aid station on the 5k course right around the half way point. Much like last year, it was understaffed and the volunteers tasked with pouring water were doing their best to pour as quickly as possible to keep up with demand.

As we moved over beside the zoo (only the first and last part of the race are inside the zoo), the field spread out a little and there was slightly less weaving, though there were still random pockets of walkers and a handful of unlucky souls who were out for their own run, walk, or bike ride and didn't know that a race was going to be taking over that part of the lake front.

I was feeling pretty good as we passed the mile 2 marker and knew that I would have no trouble maintaining my pace and finishing strong. My feet started to tingle a bit, but they weren't numb, yet.

As we headed back into the zoo, I saw a few runners who were running in costumes. Their outfits were, of course, animal themed, which was a lot of fun. There were also signs along the side of the path on our way back into the zoo with various animal facts. I don't know if these signs were for the race or if they are always there, but it was a nice touch, either way.

Once back in the zoo, we were in the home stretch. I made sure to increase my pace a bit, as I still had plenty of energy left. There were monkeys swinging around like crazy as we ran by their area and towards the finish. Once I saw the finish line, I gave one final burst of speed.

The finish line was right by the lion enclosure, and, sure enough, the king himself was there watching the finishers.

He was unimpressed with our efforts.
At the finish line they had water, Gatorade, apples, bananas, granola bars, and bags of popcorn. Some items, such as the water and Gatorade, had folks handing them out, while other items, such as the fruit, were just piled on tables for the taking. I grabbed one of everything.

Snacks! The Jalapeno Skinny Pop is pretty delicious.
The best thing offered at the finish? Popsicles! It had warmed up a bit during the race, and I was thrilled to see that just after the finishers' chute ended were people handing out popsicles to all of the runners.

Seriously, all warm weather races should find a way to have popsicles at the finish line.

I demand more popsicles at summer races! Refreshing and delicious!
I enjoyed my cold treat, drank some water, stretched, and then made my way to gear check. Luckily, the line wasn't very long, and I quickly had my bag and was able to throw on my jacket, stash my finish line snacks, and hit the bathrooms.

My plans to see some of the animals were thwarted by two things: 1.) most exhibits didn't open until 10am and 2.) chunks of the main zoo path were still closed because the 10k had only recently begun. I figured that I might as well make the best of it and grabbed my beer (Goose Island 312 = delicious) and pizza (cold and a very very small slice, but still tasty) and went in search of a shady area to sit and rest and eat. I found the perfect spot over by the wolves. It was quiet and shaded, so I was able to eat in peace.

I was feeling pretty good about my effort, especially after finishing my beer.
Once I was sated, I headed over to watch the kids race, known as "The Safari Stampede". Instead of a regular race, the kids had an obstacle course to go through. The kids were corralled by age, and they were allowed to be accompanied by one parent or guardian on the course.

Watching the youngest groups go through the obstacles was pretty much the best thing ever.

I kind of wanted to try my hand at the kids' obstacle course, but I figured that would be weird so decided against it.
Once the 10k was over and the path and various exhibits were opened, I walked around the zoo for a while thinking about the race.

I really appreciated that I saw improvements after last year's race - gear check was much easier and more efficient, and there were more bathroom options and therefore shorter lines for the bathroom. They also seemed to have a better sound system, as it was easier to hear announcements this year. The beer, post race treats, and shirt are all nice, and it is great seeing that they are working to make improvements. I appreciated getting a survey about the race emailed to me the next day, as they claim that they want to continue trying to improve.

Despite the improvements, the race still feels very unorganized and understaffed. I left with the same feeling I had last year - the race meant well but it had just grown too big and too popular for its own good and organizers just didn't know how to handle it. I'm not really sure what the next step is.

One big change that I think would help considerably would be to have the 10k start before the 5k. It would help out everyone - runners, walkers, and volunteers - because it would help alleviate some of the congestion on the course.

The great apes house opened at 10am, which is apparently feeding time...so I guess this was brunch?
Once results were posted, I found out that I finished in 29:09, which gave me an average pace of 9:23. Not my best 5k time, but far from my worst, so I'm pretty happy with it.

I don't think I will run the race again, though. My conflicted feelings about zoos in general and the odd sense of disorganization that I always get from this race just create a strange storm within my brain that has me weighing the pros and cons and feeling confused.

I'd rather find the races that are genuinely fun and cause me to be excited about the thought running the race again than continue running a race every year that ends up feeling like a chore.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 Soldier Field 10 Mile Recap

Last month's Soldier Field 10 Mile was an interesting event. It was a sort of anniversary for me, as last year's Soldier Field 10 Mile was my first real distance race. I was hoping for a similar experience, having fond memories of last year's run (I ran with one of the pace groups last year) and finish (yes, I cried last year as I crossed the finish line).

We meet again, Soldier Field!
This year was the first that RAM Racing was in charge of the race, having taken control of the former Fleet Feet race series, of which Soldier Field 10 Mile was one of the highlights. I was a little nervous, as I'm not too sure how I feel about RAM or RAM taking over all of my favorite races (a few changes to future races leave me less than impressed, but that is for a future post), but I went in with a positive attitude and hoped for the best.

Packet pick up was thankfully simple. A quick stop at Fleet Feet's Old Town location saw me get in and out of the store with no trouble, packet in hand. Packet pick up was very well staffed with friendly and helpful folks, and, as a little bonus, Fleet Feet was having their Memorial Day Sale, so I may or may not have left with a few extra items that day. What can I say? I love a good sale!  

I dig the shirt design this year.
Race day conditions were less than ideal for running 10 miles. It was a beautiful day, with beautiful blue skies, the sun shining, and warm temperatures, but that temperature and humidity wasn't great for running when you've been training in 50 degree weather all season.

My awesome friend Karen was also running, and she was kind enough to give me a ride to and from the race. Soldier Field isn't the easiest location to get to on public transit, especially very early in the morning on a weekend, so having a ride literally saved me hours that day. Thanks, Karen!

Parking was surprisingly easy, and we were soon heading towards the starting area. Beyonce's Formation Tour was playing at Soldier Field Friday and Saturday nights, and it was a little hard to miss that fact while in and around the stadium.

Beyonce! She was everywhere!
Soon, we were hanging out with our friends from Chicago Endurance Sports. I was in wave 1, thanks to having a previous race finish time that made me eligible for preferred corral assignment. and my nerves were already on high alert, so I tried to distract myself my talking to people, applying and then reapplying sunscreen, triple checking that I had my inhaler, and pinning and unpinning my bib number.

I was a little bummed that all of my friends who run a similar pace were going to be in wave 2, and a couple of them suggested I move back to run with them (you were able to move back corrals, but not move forward). I almost took them up on it, but I decided that with the forecasted heat, I wanted to start as soon as possible, and moving back would have meant waiting a minimum of 30 extra minutes to start, so I chose to stay in my assigned corral.

When it was time, I made my way to my corral and waited for the start. They were strictly enforcing the rules regarding corrals, and the opening for each corral was manned by folks who were tasked with keeping folks from jumping up to an earlier corral than what they were assigned. There were definitely a few folks who were surprised by this and weren't too happy with being told that they couldn't move forward.

In the corral. Waiting to start. Getting nervous. 
Before the race officially began, the national anthem was sung, and there was a brief ceremony to honor the troops, both past and present and to remember those who have fallen. Having grown up in a military family, it was actually a really touching moment.

Soon, the race had begun, and my corral slowly started inching towards the start line. I had butterflies in my stomach and was genuinely worried about the race and my ability to run it. I've not been having a great year and have actually been regressing when it comes to running. I've been getting slower, running has become less pleasant and even a little painful, and I've had to accept that run/walk intervals are my only option, right now.

As I got closer and closer to the start line, my nervousness took over. I didn't have a pace group to run with this year, as the run/walk pacer I would have followed was only in wave 2 and not in wave 1. I sucked it up, though, put in one earbud, and decided that the Hamilton soundtrack would be my companion for 10 miles. I was here, so I might as well finish the race, even if I had to walk it. I set my watch for run/walk intervals, and then it was my corrals turn to start.

I was seriously freaking out when I took my ritual pre race selfie.
The course was pretty much the same as last year's race, up until the very end (more on that shortly). It is a nice, flat course, heading south from the stadium on a closed Lake Shore Drive before turning around and head back north on the Lakefront Path to finish inside Soldier Field. This makes for a simple, easy to follow course. It is also incredibly boring and offers little to no shade. After the turn around, you have the Chicago skyline to run towards, which was a much more enjoyable view.

There were five aid stations on the course, all of which were stocked with water and Nuun. There were also port-o-potties and medic/first aid tents at the different aid stations. I always run with my own hand held water bottle because a.) I like to drink by thirst, b.) I usually run on the North Channel Trail, which doesn't have many water fountains, so I almost always carry my own water during training runs, and c.) it has a pocket that is the perfect size for my inhaler, which I like to keep with me, just in case.

I made sure not to go out too fast this time and started at a slower than usually 11:30 pace, with plans to pick up the pace later on. I tried a different lacing technique on my shoes, in hopes that it would alleviate the problem of my feet going numb that I experienced at the Chicago Spring 10k the week before, but, sadly, I didn't have much luck and began experiencing tingling and numbness in my left foot at mile 2, with the right foot soon following right before mile 3. Planning for run/walk intervals helped quite a bit, though, as it made it easier to stay on pace while still getting at least a little bit of feeling back into my feet during the walk breaks. By the turn around point, my calves felt like they had rocks in them. I was less than thrilled with the situation. At least I didn't have any of the stomach problems that plagued me during the Chicago Spring 10k! So...numb feet and painful calves are a less than ideal way to run, but, hey, I was feeling better than the week before!

Because I had my trusty water bottle, I didn't really take advantage of the first couple of aid stations because I didn't need to refill my bottle, and I'm not a big of Nuun's new formula. By aid station 3, however, I was grabbing water to dump over my head in an effort to cool off, a bit. I really started to feel the heat and was getting pretty toasty by the turn around, and I noticed a lot of other runners taking walk breaks.

At some point during the race, the alert level was raised to red, making this the second race that I've run where we were at a high alert level, the first being the Magnificent Mile Women's Half Marathon. I kept hoping that they would have ice or cold wash cloths at the last two aid stations they way they had at the Women's Half, but there was no such luck this time.

At the 4th aid station, I had to stop to use the facilities. I always hope that I won't have to stop during a race and lose time, but...how should I put this? When nature calls, you have to answer.

After my pit stop, I was back and running again. I was at a place where I was just ready to be finished. I was hurting and hot, and I started counting down the remaining miles and reminding myself that this was easy and that I had done it before and could do it again.

Finally, I was in the home stretch and was soon running right by the stadium. This is where I noticed the change in course. Last year, you entered a tunnel and went straight out onto the field and ran down the field to finish at the 50 yard line. This year, due to the concert stage on the field, there was a lot of running through the inner concourse of the stadium before finally making it out onto the field, basically right by the finish line. It was a good solution to the problem of having the concert and race the same weekend, and I know that the race organizers had no other option, but it just wasn't the epic finish that I was hoping to experience.

Thankfully, what hadn't changed, was the service men and women at the finish line handing out the finisher medals. This was by far my favorite part of the day.

I finished in 1:56:14, which gave me a PR. It wasn't much of a PR, but I'll take what I can get.

I finished!
There were bottles of water at the finish line, but they were just piled up on tables, with no one handing them out, which made it a struggle to reach them, as everyone crowded around, trying to grab a bottle. There was no Gatorade or similar drinks available at the finish line, as RAM partners with Nuun, which doesn't come in handy dandy individual bottles, so it was a very long walk to get outside the stadium before any sort of electrolyte drink was available.

Heading out, you walked quite a ways before finally getting outside the stadium to the runner refresh area where food was available. I was very sad to see that the snack bags were just plain plastic bags instead of the fun and sturdy reusable bags from last year (I still have and use last year's bag all the time). The snack bags were also not quite up to snuff compared to last year's goodies, containing one piece of fruit (a horribly bruised mushy banana, in my case), one bag of chips, and one mini Clif bar. The highlight of the food line was the cold wash cloths being handed out right after the food line. Finally! Something cold and refreshing!

The other cool and refreshing thing was the water slide that was meant as an advertisement for an upcoming race and was quickly becoming the most popular part of the post race festivities.

Best. Thing. Ever.
The post race party was already hopping when I arrived to meet up with friends. There were the usual sponsor tents with various freebies, a live band, and general merriment. The most important thing as far as I was concerned, however, was the food and the beer. 

Every runner got one free beer, and the beer being offered was Goose Island (score!). And Chicago Endurance Sports gave those of us who trained with them this spring a coupon to use at one of the food tents for a free sandwich after the race. They had either sausages or hamburgers. There was a lot of grumbling from folks that there was no vegetarian option this year. Don't get me wrong, this meat eater was happy with her food, but I do think that it was a bit of an oversight to have zero vegetarian options, especially when a veggie burger would have been super easy to provide.

Nothing like a sausage, chips, and beer before noon.
Ultimately, I was happy with my effort at the race. I didn't run the pace I wanted or have the finish time I wanted, but I did my best given the conditions and I finished. Sometimes simply finishing the race is an achievement.

I wasn't as thrilled with the race this year as I was last year. Maybe it just wasn't all shiny and new for me the way it was last year. Maybe completing the race didn't feel like the huge achievement it felt like last year. Maybe I've just officially run enough races that I've become a little jaded and they don't have the appeal that they once did. Even after having some time to think things over, I'm still not able to place exactly what was missing for me.

Sure, there were several little things that irked me, but most of those things weren't actually a true problem. The Nuun, for example, is just a personal preference thing - I'm just not a fan of their new formula and would rather have a different option. Also, I was bummed about the change to the finish, but I recognize that the race did the best they could when they had no control over the concert or its setup that took over the stadium for the weekend.  

I do really miss the reusable bags, though. Please bring those back.

Peace out, Soldier Field! I'm sure I'll see you again!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Prepare for Recaps

Okay....I've caught up on most of the life stuff - work, errands, chores, etc. Now, I'm trying to get caught up on everything dealing with the blog.

You know what that means, don't you?

THE RECAPS ARE COMING!

I've neglected to recap several races from the last month and a half, but I still want to share my thoughts about them, so I'll apologize now for the deluge of race recaps that are about to hit this weekend.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Turning Things Around

Ever have one of those months (or years) where you just feel as though you are constantly falling behind on everything?

Yeah. That's kind of where I am right now with everything - work, life, the blog....everything just keeps getting away from me.

Working 7 days a week is killing my soul. I have no time for friends, family, or any real rest and relaxation. I swore that I would take a day off at least every other week, but so far, that hasn't happened. Just taking the weekend off to run Ragnar this past weekend resulted in several lectures from work about what is expected of me if I want to continue working. The little time I have away from work is spent trying to complete necessary life stuff - buying groceries, doing laundry, washing dishes, paying bills - but even that feels like I'm constantly trying to catch up to where I should be.

I still work every day this week, but my hours are thankfully a bit more manageable this week, allowing me to get caught up on some basic chores like laundry and dishes, as well as finally going in for an injury screening to see what is going on with my foot and leg.

In terms of the blog, I still need to post my recap from both the Soldier Field 10 Mile and Run for the Zoo 5k. I also need to write up my experience running the Ragnar Relay this past weekend. Then, I have a big announcement that I was hoping to post about weeks ago. So...yeah...I need to start typing!

And with everything else...well, it has been a little rough, lately. My nutrition has been just awful, and I've started to regain the weight that I lost last year, which means that few of my clothes fit anymore. It is really disheartening waking up and putting on your favorite shirt only to discover that the shirt is now a full size too small.

I'm working to start turning things around. I've made nutrition a priority this week to get me back on the healthy eating bandwagon. Even without taking my weight into consideration, I've just generally been feeling awful and sluggish and bloated, due largely to all the processed junk I've been eating. I spent last night meal planning and went to the grocery store to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables for the week, as well as some lean protein.

Additionally, I scheduled my workouts for the week, so I get reminders on my phone about not just when I'm working out, but also what exactly I should be doing. Even running has become a bit of a chore in recent weeks, and it is a struggle to get out and put in my miles, and I often find myself only halfheartedly doing the necessary work, which has resulted in me becoming slower and losing some endurance. Having a daily reminder about a run/workout is already proving helpful, as it got me out of bed this morning to tackle some hills.

Basically, I've made some really bad choices that have affect my well being, and it is time to turn things around. I have a plan and have enlisted the help of some friends. Wish me luck! I have a lot of work ahead of me.