Trip Report: Phoenix Half Marathon

After more than a year of running, I think I've finally crossed the threshold that separates the people who enjoy running as a general fitness activity and the crazies who view it as a sort of religious community.

On Saturday, I woke up at 3AM, made coffee, jammed an almond butter protein bar in my mouth and drove nearly 40 minutes on a deserted freeway from my home in Phoenix to the race site in Mesa.

I arrived at the parking lot so quickly that I was able to board the first bus to the starting line, which was both a blessing and a curse: awesome because I was just a five-minute walk from my car when I crossed the finish line, but terrible because I had the privilege of huddling under umbrella furnaces for two hours with a small group of other runners. There wasn't much in the way of pre-race entertaininment, even though the emails the race organizers sent out hinted at "can't miss" festivities.

2:00:38.

That's how long it took me to run 13.1 miles. It's not a great time by any means, and, unlike during my 10K, I found myself overtaken later in the race by runners who still had gas left in their tanks. Clearly, the free Garmin training program left me woefully underprepared. Some lessons:

1. Go for miles, not minutes. While I appreciated knowing exactly how long a prescribed workout would take, I felt that I never really had a handle on how many miles I was supposed to run in a given week. For the next cycle, I'm switching over to Hal Higdon's Half Marathon Intermediate plan.

2. Cross train. I've been neglecting this for far too long. I'm lucky that the knee pain that stopped me dead in my tracks a month ago didn't resurface during the race. Every time I saw a fellow racer bomb out due to an injury (and there were many), I counted my blessings.

3. Gear up. I had a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes, but I'm thinking, at the bare minimum, I need some running shades and a belt to carry water — especially given the impending onslaught of the miserable Phoenix summer.

4. Run by feel. Those last three miles were a doozy. While there was a lovely downhill portion during the final mile that helped me through to the finish, there was a point where I thought I wouldn't make it. Part of the problem was that I spent the first half of the race trying to sprint and distance myself from the pack. This backfired in the second half when many of those same people caught up to me. Next race, I'll try pack running.

5. Eat like a runner. I need to carb up the day before a race. I run on empty normally, but I found myself stopping for every single packet of GU and every last available slice of orange. Pausing for fuel made it that much harder to get back up to pace. Better, I think, to fuel up beforehand.

Don't get weighed down

I weigh myself at least once a week — not because I'm checking to see if I've lost weight, or worried that I've gained. It's more for reassurance that proper diet and exercise are doing what they need to do for my body. And the number on the scale has been the same for a few weeks now: 152.

The fact of the matter is, I've plateaued. I'm sure if I really counted my calories and treated MyFitnessPal like it was as vital to my life as my morning coffee, I'd trim off a few more pounds. But I'm good.

I recognize, however, how the scale can give many people anxiety. If you're actively trying to shed weight, each step onto that scale is like the climax to a whodunit: was it Weight Loss in the kitchen with broccoli or Weight Gain in the study with a pint of ice cream?

Unless you're counting calories and maintaining complete control of your diet, you don't know until the scale tells you, and that sucks. The unfortunate truth is you can't rely on your body to tell you when to stop eating. You almost have to be a food dictator who weighs every bit of food, down to the last chicken breast.

I've seen firsthand the effect of "empty calories" on the body. Just this morning, I was wolfing down a Starbucks breakfast sandwich that was just shy of 550 calories. In a sandwich! I paired it with a 10-calorie iced black coffee. But imagine if I washed down one of those puppies down with a Frappuccino, which can also run around 500 calories. That would put me halfway to my daily caloric limit, just from breakfast.

Even worse, after eating the sandwich, I wasn't full — at all. I found myself staring longingly at the free loaf of banana bread I was offered because they had heated it for the customer in front of me by mistake. I decided, in light of the calorie information, to let my two-year old snack on it.

Now, by contrast, a 200-calorie bowl of oatmeal leaves me full until lunch. When I make my own bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, with whole wheat toast in place of the croissant roll, I'm even more stuffed. I'm not sure what sort of laboratory magic Starbucks uses to create a sandwich that's so dense, yet so completely unsatisfying, but I can only imagine the kind of havoc those items wreak havoc on the diets of people who are trying to lose weight without calorie counting.

You can avoid bad weigh ins. Take charge of what you're eating so you know what to expect when you step on the scale. Also, look for foods that stick to your ribs. Oatmeal and high protein cereals have become my morning staples because they're easy to prepare and keep me full.

Four more days

The Phoenix Marathon is only four days away. Now that I know what to expect from race day, I'll be more prepared to endure the long lines at the porta-potties, the agony of waiting for my coral to be ushered off of the starting line and the inevitable post-race aches.

Here are just a few of the lessons I learned from my 10K:

  1. Use the bathroom before leaving the house. Twice.
  2. Arrive early enough to endure the porta-potty lines.
  3. Make sure the bib is pinned on before going to bed.
  4. Eat a larger breakfast (I think I had peanut butter on toast last time).
  5. Know when to back off on pace (I PRed my 10K, but I was really, really sore the next day).

That's really all there is to it. I've been fairly dilligent with my training program, save for the few days I took off because of my knee. I've yet to have that sort of blinding pain revisit me, so I'm cautiously optimistic for race day. But I always knew I wasn't going to let my race fees go to waste. I'll walk to the finish line if I have to.

If anything, the whole knee thing really hit home the importance of strength training. While I've backed off considerably on Starbucks and making monthly frivolous purchases on Amazon, I've all but given up on the idea of going to the gym at 5AM. It's just not the kind of thing I want to do that early in the morning.

I'll be honest. Part of the allure of running at 5AM is the guarantee that I'll be the only one out there. The sidewalk is mine. Gyms have, well, people, and the thought of sharing exercise equipment with others is more than enough to throw my resolution off track.

I may get there eventually, though. Clearly, my hips need strengthening. Five days away from running was maddening enough. I can't imagine how restless I'd be if I had to take a longer vacation because of a serious injury. But, hey, that might give me an excuse to hit the weights.

Treat Yo Self

Everything in moderation - including moderation.

I will never know how much change I pumped into the vending machines at Northern Arizona University, for a couple of reasons:

  1. I was worse with money then than I am now.
  2. The actual amount is probably so obscene that knowing would rip apart the very fabric of my now healthy existence.

Mountain Dew got me through two degree programs. It was the only thing that kept me awake for the writing of every single essay in my English classes. It helped me stay awake after those long night writing sessions. And it enabled me to pull all-nighters playing Mario Golf and slinging back cheap spiced rum.

Truth be told, it's not just my wallet that suffered — my teeth and waistline paid a toll as well, but I've got those in check now.

Honestly, I could make this entire blog post about the nature of my addiction to soda, but, to make a long story short, I eventually learned that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I kicked my soda addiction shortly before shipping off to South Korea.

I drink coffee now — a habit I developed slowly over two years of graduate school, when I discovered the wonders of Starbucks's Double-Shot Espresso. While I probably could kick my two-cup-a-day addiction if I wanted to — and had a long enough period of free time where I didn't have to operate heavy machinery — what I really want to talk about is beer.

I'm a firm believer in running for beer. Running has helped me stave off the dreaded "beer belly." I'm thankful that regular exercise has afforded me the ability to have a beer while I'm cooking dinner. And while it is just one measly beer a night, it's not only expensive (I have to drink $11 six-packs of microbrew, of course), it cheapens the experience of consuming beer.

Quite simply, I've come to the realization that a treat every night isn't a treat. I don't have sweets every day. I consume soda these days even more sporadically. Why should beer be different? Water is a necessity — I'm alarmed when I don't pee clear. Coffee, clutch. Beer, not so much.

At this point, I'm moving beer into the category of things I only consume on days that start with "S." It will be an actual treat, which will not only reduce the amount of money I spend each month on frosty brews but ensure that when I crack open a can, I'll savor the sound it makes, and every sip I take.

This is really an exercise in mindfulness more than anything else. One beer a day doesn't have an adverse affect on my health or weight. But I'm paring things down. I already have a vice: coffee. Beer is getting demoted.

It was a good run, really, but I've found that more of each can goes into the sink than into my mouth. Maybe when it's an occasional treat, I'll actually start finishing them again.

Storm the stage (of fatherhood)

I have a confession to make: I'm not really "with" it. Popular music doesn't do a lot for me. Consequently, I don't watch the Grammys. Well, I do almost all of my TV viewing through Apple TV, so even if I wanted to watch the record industry's annual "let's give ourselves a pat on the back" party, I couldn't.

But then Kanye West almost repeats his stunt from the 2009 Grammys with Taylor Swift, leaving me to wonder if I should probably try.

Look, as much as people love to hate Kanye West, the fact remains that he is a genius. I like industrial music. A lot. But I'll be the first to admit that it's a stale, dying subgenre of electronic music populated with tattooed, white musicians with a penchant for leather and eyeliner. It's not a genre known for diversity.

In 2013, Kanye West released Yeezus, an album front-loaded with abrasive, near-industrial-sounding tracks, leading many fans of the genre to admit that West released the best industrial album of 2013. Let's be honest: he did. Even when West leaves his comfort zone and dabbles in unfamiliar waters, he excels.

People label Kanye West many things, but only one tends to stick out: arrogant. Yeah, West has a high opinion of himself. But he has every right to be. Like it or not, he's good at what he does. He also makes a good point every once in a while. Here's one:

"People always tell you be humble. Be humble! When's the last time someone told you be great? Be amazing? Be awesome! Be awesome!"

I've internalized those words and intend to live by them. When someone tells me I'm a good father, I will say, "I know." I try to be. A lot of parents are content to sit on their cell phones while their children play. That's totally cool, but that's not Kanye West-level parenting.

If my daughter wants me to follow her through a tunnel at a children's museum, I will. If she wants me to get inside a boxing ring in the middle of a wedding reception and run around in circles, I will. (Why was there a boxing ring at a wedding reception? Long story.)

You can go full West without compromising your individual needs and desires. It just takes some creativity. I run at 5AM. I make the most of nap time. My daughter goes to bed early enough to leave my evenings open.

At the same time, I get that it's not always possible to operate at that level. Maybe you work two jobs (my dad did). Maybe the job you have is so exhausting that you just want to chill when you get home. I spend eight hours a day sitting in a cubicle, so sitting around at home is not my thing.

Look, American culture is full of double standards. We tote the character-building of "team" sports but routinely elevate individual players. If you didn't know anything about American football (which I don't), you'd think that Brady and Gronkowski won the Super Bowl for the Patriots, and the rest of the team just did their best not to screw it up for those two guys.

And the Chicago Bulls of the early 90s? Jordan. Jordan. Jordan. What about Pippen, Rodman or Paxson? The latter ruined the Phoenix Suns's hopes of an NBA championship. Here's another nugget of wisdom:

It takes a village to raise a child.

Sure. Whatever. Just sit at the park for an hour and see how well the village has raised this current generation of kids. (Actually, don't sit at the park by yourself. That's creepy.)

Be present for your children. Leave your comfort zone. Go full throttle. And when someone sees what you're doing and commends you for it, be all Kanye West about it.