Friday, April 22, 2011

2011 Olathe Half Marathon

Billed as the "Wickedly Fast Half Marathon" due to a new "flatter" course this year, the only thing wicked out there was the wind. Fast was not in my vocabulary this day.

And, I'm a little remiss about writing the race report. Partly, because I wasn't that excited about the race (I was just really, really spent). But, also, I kept waiting for official results (April 16, 2011, bib #1275) to be posted and then pictures. You'll see that I was 8th female overall (503 female finishers), and first in my age division. My official time was: 1:43:41.

I'd written up a few quick notes about the race to my running group, and I think it probably expresses my experience the best without my typical long, drawn out story. Mostly, I just remember the wind. In my face. On my body. Making me feel like I was walking. Or, better yet, running--yet not actually moving.

Positive things:
* The starting BOOM of the cannon (not even Boston does it better than that!)
* This was my first marathon back on March 31, 2007, so, I have fond memories. I ran a 4:17:00 that year, and was hooked
* I finally found the finish line and it ended
* I managed to qualify for NY again, despite the aggravating factors, mentioned below (so I validated myself a little after RTP, which did seem a bit unreal)
* Cool TShirt, I liked the Oz theme

Negative things:
* This race has been around since 2004, so, they should know how to put on a good race with the number of volunteers and participants they have. Shame on them.
* There were 15 porta-sans at the starting line. Are you kidding me? I entered the line, pretty desperate, at 6:25 AM. I exited the porta-sans with many people still waiting at 6:56 AM. The race started at 7:00 AM. I BARELY made it before the cannon went off. I have to wonder, what did all the other people do?
* The wind was terrible, steady 24-27 mph winds NNW, with gusts over 40 mph. This wore me down, and even my neck ached the next day from fighting the wind. I really struggled, and never felt good.
* There were 37 turns (this was a new course this year). For a small field, this requires a lot of volunteers to ensure that runners know where to go. I was running alone for a good bit of the race, esp. towards the end, I had no one in sight. As a result, I actually missed the last turn, where there was no visible sign, no cones and no people. After a bit, some volunteers ran towards me and turned me around and put me back to the turn I had missed. When I drove through later, they had two people, a pick-up truck and a barricade at the straight away (where I went through), so I must not have been the only person to make this mistake. The course was simply too complex overall. 37 turns in a half marathon is ridiculous.
* Crappy, cheap medals. Now, I admit, I didn't run it for the medal, but coming off of Rock The Parkway, Oz was definitely outclassed by RTP (on all counts), which is only in its SECOND year!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Run, Total Stranger, Run!

Subtitle: 2011 Rock the Parkway Half Marathon Race Report

It's About Time.

I'd like to say that I'd expected this. Or, that I carefully planned my pace, knowing my goal pace and goal splits. That I did an excellent job of preparing. None of those are true.

My workouts since Houston have been extremely challenging, leaving me at the edge of my ability; stretching beyond; and, at times... I failed--not quite being up to the task and being forced to modify by adding some additional recovery seconds; or trying a workout again the next day. I kept thinking Vince had mistaken me for another runner. Bill Risch, perhaps? My weekly mileage has been decent, sometimes two-a-dayers, but no single run over eleven miles since Houston on January 31. The intensity has been higher than I've ever felt in all of my training thus far, but after feeling demoralized from Houston; worried about the hills; I'd checked my ego at the door and had no expectations today. In fact, I visualized myself swallowing my pride completely, and walking it in.

I've never actually run a half marathon as fast as I could, and this course certainly wasn't making me think it was going to go well. My last few weeks at work have been unbearably stressful, extending me through too many hours and too many emotional crises. I never prepared for this race mentally; and I finally left my office at 8:30 PM last night having not done the first thing to prepare. I felt rushed and incomplete. Laying in bed last night at 9:45 PM, setting my alarm for 4:50 AM, I realized I had indeed forgotten something very important in my race preparation. I'd forgotten to eat dinner. I'd had a small microwave meal at 11:45 that morning, and absolutely nothing since. That's right, while everyone else was carbo-loading, I accidentally fasted. What an idiot I am. I was too tired, too lazy and too depressed to do anything about it and just went to bed hungry.

Driving to the race this morning, I realized I'd forgotten one other key element--where the race actually started and where I was supposed park. Whoops.

Walking around prior to race start and seeing so many in their Boston jackets and snappy race singlets from this club or the other, I sunk even lower. I looked like homeless person, wearing ill-fitting and ill-matching throw-away clothes I'd picked up at Salvation Army and never needed due to the heat in Houston. I didn't even know where to line up. Everyone was abuzz with excitement... but me. I wanted to hide in a crack in the pavement. Could I break 2 hours? 1:50? Someone sent me an email last night and asked me my goal time. I never responded, expecting my finishing time to be an embarrassment. However, I wanted to learn what a half marathon felt like. And I was determined to go through this experience--whatever it brought me.

I selected a spot next to the person carrying the 1:45 Pacer sign. Not that I expected to RUN a 1:45, in fact, I knew that I couldn't. I just figured that people would line up too far up front, and that I'd just see if I could find a pace near that in the beginning and hang on as long as I could.

The horn went off, and there we went. I felt unbearably boxed in. I couldn't move. I struggled to find a place where I wasn't at an 11:00 pace. I darted around people, hopped up on the curb, did what I needed to do to find any position that wasn't a sardine-in-a-can. Then I did everything I could to drop my pace. My first mile was the slowest as a result, 8:11 (a wide range of walking to speeding up).

By Mile 2, we were climbing the first part of the big hill, and I was gradually finding a rhythm. It was still pretty crowded, and somewhere in here, I grabbed a few sips of Gatorade--my one of two water stops. I wasn't actually thirsty--per se--it just happened to be the first race in a long time I was by some miracle actually on the same side as the first water stop. This was symbolic. I heard my watch chirp, and it said 7:54 (my second slowest mile). "Whoops, that was a little too fast," I thought. I was certain I'd just blown it and would pay for it later. Oh well.

Mile 3 and we were still climbing, and I was feeling the hill, but we had a few breaks in it, allowing me to recover before the next rise began. My center felt really strong, and I finished this mile (and the big hill) in 7:51 (my third slowest mile). I cracked my first smile as somewhere in here were a group of people holding signs and cheering enthusiastically. The one sign I read said, "Run, Total Stranger, Run!" I loved it! Thank you, Total Strangers!

Mile 4 at last was a welcome relief from the hill, and I felt myself picking up a little bit of speed. I finished in 7:27 and couldn't believe the race was almost 1/3 over already. I tossed my gloves and began to relax and be happy. This wasn't actually going to be so bad. The worst had to be behind me, the weather was perfect (mid-40s) and the miles were seductively easy (go figure!). I hadn't really had the feeling of working hard yet.

Somewhere in Mile 5 I grabbed a sip of water--one sip--and that was my last water stop. I just didn't need it or want it, and my excitement was growing. I also stopped looking at my watch. I'd found the cadence and the feeling I wanted to maintain for the race, and didn't really have any expectations as to what it was. It was simply the right pace and I knew this by feel. We began to weave our way through the turns, and I clipped this mile at 7:41 and Mile 6 at 7:37 and Mile 7 in 7:46. There were little hills here and there, but both uphill and downhill, and nothing really took too much out of me. I'd settled and was running in the open at my own speed. Right at the hairpin turn, I saw Travis, who shouted out to me. He wasn't that far ahead. I wondered if I could catch him. He was running strong!

Mile 8 found me back down Ward Parkway, and I was marveling at how well I felt. I just felt strong and relaxed, and was waiting to start feeling bad. I wanted to be sure to contain the "bad" to the last 5K, thinking I could probably push through that in 25-27 minutes worst-case. Mile 9 rolled by in 7:42 (but I hadn't seen my watch in miles).

Now, I was really keen on Mile 10. Where the hell was it? This was where I was going to allow myself to start feeling bad--it was OK to feel bad now. It was also where I was going to look at my watch and start calculating what I thought my finishing time might be. But, I never saw the marker. This was the lowest point of the race emotionally for me (save for the start). I was not fading; but I keenly needed to know I only had 5K to go. By the time my watch read 10.5 miles, I decided I must have missed it completely. The problem here was, I needed to know where I was on the course relative to 5K-left-to-go to know where I was in the finishing time. During the race at this point, I couldn't even calculate to a ten minute predicted finish since I missed this key mile-marker. "Oh well," I muttered to myself, "it's not like it matters. This isn't the goal race." I finished mile 10 in 7:38.

Now things were getting interesting. There was a girl who had switched positions with me several times. She was attacking the hills and gaining on me, and then going downhill conservatively where I would take the lead. She looked very strong, and I decided it would be a good idea to try and beat her. And then, the unexpected big hill arrived. I hung onto her and stayed just a few feet behind, and was making up my mind how to pass her and stay past her. I decided I would rest at this pace, and then blow by her and try to keep the pace strong so she wouldn't regain it. Then, something amazing happened. A man ran by on my left with a notably faster pace than I was running, and I decided to go with him. We blew by her and I hung on long enough to feel I'd accomplished this pass successfully. I never saw her again.

At this point is the only complaint I have about this race--the slowest of the 10K-ers (who started 15 minutes after the half-marathoners) were walking it in--sometimes three abreast in the middle of the course. Ordinarily, at this pace for a half-marathon (my average moving pace was 7:39 overall), one doesn't expect to negotiate dozens of walkers and / or extremely slow joggers in the middle of the road. If the race organizers could do anything better next time--it would be to start the 10K-ers at a much different time (earlier or much later) to avoid the half marathoners as much as possible.

Mile 11 was 7:50 and Mile 12 was 7:45, and the last hill was behind me. I now glanced down at my watch and knew I was somewhere in the low-to-mid 1:40's for a finishing time. I'd guessed about 1:43-1:44, and this was the first inkling I had that the 1:44:00 year's goal was actually within my reach. I was shocked. I got chills. A little downhill, a little kick and a possible Travis sighting ahead, I finished Mile 13 in 7:14 and just went for it to the finish line. I punched my watch after running over ALL the cables (four? five? six? how many do they need?), and then lost my Garmin screen completely. Figures, touchy thing.

I breathed. It was over. I might have actually run a 1:44:00 or better, but I wasn't sure. I looked up and saw Travis. A few brief words of congratulations back and forth, I found my finishing time after multiple pushes and taps and we compared. He'd punched his watch exactly ten seconds before I did, reading a 1:41:15 and mine read a 1:41:25. Rock The Parkway Half Marathon 2011 by agardn07 at Garmin Connect - Details

Hell, yes. While I still await the official results, I know I have plenty of buffer and resoundingly qualified for the 2012 New York Marathon. While stunned, I am very happy. I'll post pictures when some are available.

Other official results (1:41:21) here. Looks like I took 3rd in my division out of 171, so not too bad.

Monday, January 31, 2011

My Houston Marathon Report--What I Learned About When To Make A Decision To Drop

Race Goals. I had essentially two goals in Houston, the most important of which was to qualify for a guaranteed starting position in New York (requiring a 3:38:00, a slight edge over my 2009 Chicago time of 3:38:22). The more challenging goal was to run a 3:35-something. Anything in that range (3:35-3:38), and I would be ecstatic. My workouts indicated this was possible, but I intended to play it conservatively. I wore two pacing bands, one for 3:35:00 and one for 3:38:00. Neither of which got a single glance the entire time.

Pre-race. The average temperature of my two longest runs this season was 20 F. Contrast that to 65 F at the start in Houston, soggy, muggy and we were promised bits of rain. The announcer warned we'd be routed to safety in the event of lightning within 10 miles of the course. I figured with the erstwhile rain, I'd be cooled enough and followed a "non hot" marathon pre-race routine. I had not had any water since I woke at 4:30 AM (Ok, I mean finally got out of bed, I didn't sleep), when I downed my usual 16 ounces. Hydration is good; port-a-sans stops are not.

The twin booms of the half marathon and marathon starting guns reverberated, and soon, I was off onto the wet streets of Houston with a steady rain that was seen more than felt.

I've broken into sections of the race that follow the "unofficial" splits that family / friends sent me from text messages / chip times as I crossed the various check points. My Garmin acted up before during and after the race, and I ended up losing all my data long before I could download it. I don't really remember many miles in great detail anyway, and it's best to take this in chunks.

5 K--25:02 (8:03 overall). My first real memory while running was my mouth being cotton dry, gasping dry, and I was parched. In the rain, ironically. I was on the farthest left of the field, knowing there was a 90 degree turn to the left coming up, but just before mile 2, the water stations were to the far right. I was wise to this trick, having experienced this in Boston--where I veered over, completely missing the water tables on the right, only to have them come up on the left and completely miss those too. Smarter runner... let the water come to me! Or, so I thought. Dumb runner, it never did. No water this split.

Despite the thirst, during this period the miles were seductively easy. I was trying to slow down, but kept finding myself below 8:00. The pace didn't feel right. It felt too slow. Maybe my Garmin was wrong--it froze on me earlier, but then I was figuring the gun time vs. my start time and decided it must be right. I needed to slow it down to 8:11.

10K--50:21 (8:06 overall). At last, mile 4 there was a second water station. On the right. Crap. Well, I managed to get over, but got the tiniest tablespoon of Gatorade and I nearly choked on it. It was mile 6 before I managed to grab two cups and downed them both without slowing. This would probably mark the beginnings of why this race was a struggle--it was warmish, quite humid, marked by occasional wind gusts and rain. I got behind on water and electrolytes, and never was able to catch up.

Still, I'm nudging the pace up (trying to get to 8:11 and hold--which means slowing down), but the miles feel like water. I'm effortless. My legs feel fluid, and I think this just might be my day.

There are a few gentle "rollers" usually in the form of overpasses in the first 10K. None of them in particular are worth mentioning, or even troublesome--but they are there and keep it interesting.

15K--1:15:49 (8:08 overall). The next 5K are really flat, and still, I am feeling wonderfully well, attempting to pick up fluid at every stop, but I now realize I'd probably fallen way behind and somewhere in here, I can't logistically manage water without stopping, so I skip a station. I'm finding the 8:11s more often, and running all of this at 8:11 or 8:12 pace, right on target.

20K--1:41:30 (8:10 overall). Still in a very flat portion of the course, I am getting warm but still feeling good, and managing my pace of 8:11 very well. This is perhaps my favorite part of the course, as we pass by lovely homes and Rice University.

Half--1:47:13 (8:10 overall). Just before we turn north on Weslayan, we cross the half-way point. I'm exactly on schedule, a few seconds to spare, but overall feeling good. This is the last checkpoint where I can say that.

25K 2:07:39 (8:13 overall). Just past mile 14 is the only prominent hill on the course, an overpass. Nothing terrible, but my plan was to let this mile go. I expected to gain 20-30 seconds on the mile and not try to make it up. As it happens, I crossed mile 15 in 8:28, just about on schedule. And I plan to pick the pace back up. But it doesn't come to me.

Instead, for the first time, I find the 8:11 pace requiring effort. And the nausea has begun. I worry, and hope this passes. I switch totally to water, not sure what's wrong, but I realize I'm not far along enough to be feeling this bad. I eke out an 8:12 at mile 16, and then, nearly throw up. I stopped looking at my watch, thinking, ok, it is what it is. If you can just run a comfortable pace in for the remaining 11 miles, so be it.

I pray for lightning.

The cramping began. First, in my calves, but soon spreading to one of my glutes and the nausea intensifies and the pain is intense. But, the pain isn't the real problem--the fact that the muscles are locking up is. My calves aren't even flexing anymore, and I realize I'm in trouble. Lightning doesn't come.

I take a quick walk break, and then start to jog again. I carry on like this, realizing at 18 miles that eight miles to go in this condition can be toughed out--but at what cost? At the very least, I'm worried something is going to tear. And I somehow need to get through the nausea, which is now making me dizzy.

30K 2:35:51 (8:21 overall) Somewhere in here I cross over 30K. I start walking again, give up on the lightning, and realize it's time for me to call it a day. I'm so far off of my goal, and the cost to actually make it to the finish will be exceedingly high. So high, at best, I will need a lengthy recovery and start over at zero for the season, and at worst, I might face a long-term injury.

I pulled over into the aid station near mile 20 for the long wait. So long, in fact, I think that the walk / jogging it in would not only have gotten me to the finish area faster, I wouldn't be questioning if I should have just done it. I have two hours to contemplate my decision. But any difficult decision is just that--difficult. I'm not sure there is a 'right' or a 'wrong' answer here, but this ultimately was a 'good' decision for me.

I wouldn't suggest that pulling over and calling it quits is a typical solution to a 'bad' marathon. In fact, in most cases, one should really press on. If you're truly in doubt, consider that the marathon isn't well set up to cart non-finishers back to the end, and you'll likely wait for a long time for the privilege. Walking it into the finish might be the best option.

I thought I'd wrap up with some conclusions about when you might--and when you might not--want to consider ending your "bombed" marathon.

When NOT to drop out of your marathon:

1. Your first marathon. This is a really important event, and it's an experiment of the distance. If you are a novice like I was, you've likely not gone more than 20 miles. Unless you risk serious, imminent bodily harm--pulling out of your first marathon will fill you with long-lasting doubts. You'll probably hit a point you wish you could quit. Don't do it.

2. Your goal is to finish. Sometimes, the goal is a very specific one--like Houston was for me. Other times, it's important for other reasons. When I ran Boston in 2009, I would have walked, crawled, hopped, pushed or dragged myself across the finish line, no matter what suffering or what my time was. Wearing my Boston gear for which I had worked so hard was essential for me. Likewise, if your marathon is plugging hole in a set (e.g., 50 marathons in 50 states, all world major marathons), you probably want to ensure you've leveraged your investment. If you want it, chances are probably 99.5% you'll pull it off, even if you think you can't at mile 20. Quitting is simply not an option.

3. You haven't done many marathons. The cost of dropping out of the marathon if you only have a few behind you is very high. It's a decision that will haunt you in ways you haven't dreamed. Unless you have quite a few solid marathons behind you, you're probably better off toughing it out.

"If you quit the race for reasons other than abnormal fatigue, the sense of failure with stay with you for a very long time and will increase the likelihood that the same thing will happen in the next race. Extreme fatigue is, by itself, not a reason to quit any race. Much of the marathon battle is mental anyway, and often fatigue becomes more bearable the nearer you get to the finish... Should you quit, remember, there is no second chance." The Lore of Running 4th Edition, Tim Noakes, p. 631

When the decision to drop out might be a good one.

1. You have a very specific goal in mind, and reason to believe you can attain it--and you're not even close. By dropping out early from the marathon, you can probably treat it as a tempo run and be ready to race again in just a few weeks. Finishing this race way off your target pace, draining your body to its maximum will prevent you from a successful marathon that is back on goal any time soon. Let's face it--the marathon season is a huge investment. You simply don't need another marathon "notch," but you DO need (or want) your goal.

2. Chest pain, severe injury (such as broken bone), shortness of breath, extreme dehydration or symptoms of heat stroke. You are risking more than your ego here. Best case--stop off at the medical tent and be evaluated. If your symptoms are serious enough, they won't let you back out.

If you've ever had to drop out of a race, I'd love to hear about it. My decision is barely 36 hours old. I'm only beginning to understand the ramifications--both good and bad.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Happened in Houston...

For those of you who were faithfully following my progress today in Houston, thank you. I thought I'd briefly update you on what happened, and later I'll write a more detailed "race report."

Briefly, I made the decision to drop out around the 18-19 mile mark and walked to the nearest aid station due to extreme nausea and cramping. I was very concerned that even if I could get past the nausea, I might be risking long term damage to my muscles, as I forced them to cooperate against their will. I had very marked goals going into the race, and I believe that it was more important for me to live to run another day to achieve those goals than it was to complete and make it to the finish line.

Yes, I could have finished this marathon. But, at a minimum, it would have cost me an entire marathon training cycle. Stopping when I did will allow me to spend this training cycle at another time when my body and the conditions are more cooperative. I made my decision that continuing today was not worth the cost to my body, and I can more quickly leverage my fitness to cash in on my goals in the nearer future.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Designing a Boston Marathon Age Distribution That Better Reflects Marathoner Demographics

I've finally had the Boston Marathon 2010 individual result data as well as some time to take a closer look, and I have some surprising findings. My goal was to take the overall finisher count (22,540) and determine what a "perfect" distribution of runners might look like, based on marathoner demographics. The data suggest that the younger age divisions are actually under-represented, and bloating occurs in the older divisions--most pronounced in the 45-49 age group.

Of course, this is my approach based on some assumptions and based on the data available to me, as well as the fact I am not in favor of dramatically increasing the number of available slots to Boston runners. I am in favor of a sufficiently "elite" (term used very loosely; most of us running Boston are certainly not elite runners) qualifying standard that the event doesn't sell out in hours (a point of contention for many, I know). So, my "perfect" Boston finisher field will assume the same number of finishers as we had in 2010. I do recognize quite a few more qualified and didn't start or didn't finish for various reasons.

The first thing I noticed is that the Boston Qualifying times don't match the actual age divisions in Boston for one group of runners. The qualifying times are split 0-34 years old and 35-39 years old, yet the actual age division is 0 to 39. I believe the age divisions should match the qualifying times, although I understand the reasoning is probably "open" vs. "masters." However, if that is the logic applied, it should be consistent. For the purposes of this exercise, I am assuming that there are separate age divisions for 0-34 and 35-39, due to the qualifying times (even though in practice, that is not true; I've created it).

In the 2010 Boston Marathon, there were 22,540 finishers, and it's these results on which I will be basing my analysis. I don't have visibility into who actually entered, but for the conclusions I will draw, actual qualifying times for entrants don't matter (I'm not making actual recommendations on the times; just the target distribution by age division). Also, I couldn't factor in how many bibs are given away or earned through charity partnerships, however, I'll make the assumption that these runners follow the overall demographics of other runners.

My purposes here today are to take that 22,540 finisher count, and see how each age division fared against a hypothetical "fair" distribution. Since it's my blog, I'm choosing fair in what I believe is an objective approach. I'm defining a Boston Marathon field (using the finishers count) that largely mirrors the running population demographics of today and has the same number of finishers as the 2010 Boston Marathon. While some may take exception to this goal, my purpose will be to point out what that Boston field "should" look like, vs. what it actually looked like in 2010, by age and gender division.

While I've seen varying statistics on male vs. female marathon runners (up to an even 50/50 split of male / female), I'm going a hard line route to quote the 2009 Marathon and State of the Sport Reports using 2008 data to find the goal male / female split for Boston. This puts our target Boston Field at 41 percent female and 59 percent male (the widest recent margin I could find). The math is pretty easy then for our 22,540 2010 Boston Marathon finishers, there should have been:
  • 9,241 females (9,474 actually finished)
  • 13,299 males (13,066 actually finished)
We're not too far off here, 42 percent of actual finishers were ladies, and 58 percent were men. But, let's be fair and a little more specific, one percent of the finishers who are ladies (or, 2.4% equal to 233 of the ladies) have to go to make up my perfect Boston field to match these demographics.

Now, one thing that has been pointed out by many, lay and official alike, is that the one age division where women outnumber the men is 0 to 39, and this is certainly one area that should get some attention. I begrudgingly accepted these facts until I looked at the data. Here was my next big surprise. My target Boston field isn't the result of the same number of participants per age division; that isn't fair (example: there aren't the same number of 65-69 year olds running as 35-39 year olds). Instead, let's look at the distribution of marathon participants, by age division, today:

I did have to split a few of the age divisions as follows. Not perfect, but I don't think it's too far off, especially considering the size of the 0-34 age group.

* Split 35-44 in half for each age group, 50/50
** Split 45-54 in half for each age group, 50/50
*** Split 55-64 in half for each age group, 50/50

Note that of actual marathon runners, nearly half of all ladies are 0-34 years old and a third of all men are in the same age group. I actually found that pretty interesting. Without examining the more detailed data, it had seemed the older age groups were getting short-changed at Boston, but the data actually says quite the opposite. Looking at these target distributions, here's what "my" target Boston field should look like, with the "Boston Distro Goal F / M" field showing the "target count" for each age division to create my goal finishing field:

Now, here are the actual Boston Marathon 2010 results, broken out in COUNT by AGE DIV showing MINIMUM, MEAN, MEDIAN and MAXIMUM finishing time, followed up by the Boston Qualifying time for that age group:

** Omitted because qualifying times are split in the 0-34, 35-39 divisions
From this data it isn't hard to calculate my target Boston field and the difference between actual and goal, which is this:

* Data is combined into a 65+ division
** Omitted because qualifying times are split in the 0-34, 35-39 divisions

Shown on a graph, you can see bloating (too many runners in a division) and under-representation (too few runners in a division) pretty clearly. It was startling to me to conclude that both men AND women are significantly under-represented in the 0-34 age division, and that it did seem that older age groups, especially the men, were bloated. This data suggests the qualifying time for a 0-34 year old male at 3:10:59 probably is too harsh, and that standards need to be toughened up a bit in other areas.

For the ladies, 40-44 is slightly bloated and 45-49 more so. After that we're talking about very few ladies at all. So, it looks like, in fact, my qualifying time IS TOO EASY (look, guys, you were right all along!). The male 45-49 age group was the most bloated of all, slightly edging out the bloating of the ladies of the same age.

Graph of Female Differentials: Above the zero line shows how many more ladies should be in my "target" Boston field. Below the zero line shows the bloating, where too many ladies were in the division:

Graph of Male differentials, as above. Bloating is shown below the zero line. Again, counts above the zero line are additional runners who should be in the division:

Today, I'll stop short of what I think the qualifying times should be, I'm sure this post will be controversial enough without it. Yes, I believe we should keep the available bibs approximately the same. I no longer believe the standards should be adjusted across the board, but I do believe that certain age groups stand to be loosened, while others tightened. I also believe this should be examined every few years, to keep with the contemporary demographics of marathon runners: maybe we age, maybe more females start running. Whatever it is, Boston will remain to me one of the most exciting challenges and goals I've ever met, and I hope it continues to be the much sought after goal by all determined marathon runners alike.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are The Boston Qualifying Standards Too Easy for Women?

I'd planned to sign up for Boston this year, but didn't see any hurry to do it. The day after registration opened (October 18, 2010), one of my non-runner friends asked me if I were one of the few who had gotten in. I'd completely missed that it had sold out in hours.

Which prompted some interesting discussions with other runners in the following weeks. Boston really shouldn't sell out in hours--on that we all agreed. But, how do you make a correction so that Boston re-emerges as the "People's Olympics" type of event that it once was? While I have some ideas for that (fodder for future posts), the most common theme I heard from other runners was the standards were too easy for women.

It's hard to conclude anything other than, well, I really didn't deserve to qualify because I didn't work that hard for it.
Come to find out, this is a fairly widely held belief: "But there's another possible reason for the surging demand—one that has the potential to kick up a fair amount of controversy. It's the notion that the qualifying standards for women are too soft…. Some running experts say that one way to reduce excess demand for Boston slots would be to stop treating women like the gentler sex." (WSJ, It's Time for Women to Run Faster: Boston's Crowded Marathon Prompts a Gender War; Why Females Get an Extra 30 Minutes)

I'd like to debunk the myth that Boston's qualifying standards are disproportionately too easy on women, and that lowering the women's standards on their own won't solve the Boston entry problem.

More men than women qualify for and run Boston.

In Boston 2010 (the year I ran it), forty-two percent of the finishers were women.

In 2009, the total number of finishers of U.S. marathons and other road races were just about evenly split, men versus women.

If you assume that the same percentage of those who qualified actually run and complete the race, you can draw the simple conclusion, that about twenty percent more men than women qualified for Boston in 2010. Based on the national average of marathon completers versus Boston qualifiers, it actually appears that women may have it harder--even with the 30 minutes of additional time to qualify.

Yes, a 50-54 man has to run 5 minutes faster than an under-39 woman to qualify, but the average winning time of the 50-54M age group is 7:21 faster than the average winning time of the under-39F age group.

Too many women qualifying for Boston simply isn't the problem. Reading through some angry online forums that mostly bash on t
he "easy standards for women," I think IsleRoyaleRunner said it best: "The reason why it's [Boston 2011] anticipated to sell out in a matter of days has little to do with lowering the standard for women. There aren't 10,000 women running between 3:35 and 3:40. All the standards need to be lowered significantly if you want the race to be open past the 1st of the year."

Study after study has shown that the Marathon distance performance gap between men and women is between 11 to 12 percent:

"This is a fascinating result. Women actually do better, relatively speaking, in the shorter events, and the marathon is one of their worst distances compared to men." (Men vs. Women in Sports)

In their examination of performance in sports, women versus men, Astrand and Rodahl state "…In the marathon, women are 12% slower." They elaborate, "The women's running economy was poorer; that is, their oxygen uptake during running at a standard submaximal speed was higher. The heart rate, respiratory exchange ratio, and blood lactate concentration also confirmed that a given running speed resulting in higher physiological strain for the women." (Textbook of work physiology: physiological bases of exercise by Per-Olof Astrand, Kare Rodahl)

Due to key differences between men and women, women are at a distinct disadvantage for running the marathon:

"The marathon is simply not long enough to nullify the physiological advantages that men have in testosterone level, maximal oxygen consumption, and hemoglobin level. Given that over 99% of the energy used in the marathon is produced aerobically, women’s lower hemoglobin level (which mean women can transport less oxygen per unit of blood) is a distinct disadvantage." (Will Women Marathoners Catch the Men? Pfitzinger Lab Reports)

Women's blood carries 11% less oxygen for the same blood volume.

"It's obvious that males frequently achieve better performance times than similarly trained females. Part of the reason for this is that males routinely engage in a perfectly legal, natural form of 'blood doping.' The key male sex hormone - testosterone - promotes the production of haemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein found inside red blood cells, and testosterone also increases the concentration of red cells in the blood. The key female hormone - oestrogen - has no such effect. As a result, each litre of male blood contains about 150-160 grams of haemoglobin, compared to only 130-140 grams for females. The bottom line is that each 'male' litre of blood can carry about 11 per cent more oxygen than a similar quantity of female blood.

"Note how closely this 'oxygen gap' parallels the performance gap observed by Seiler and Sailer, who found a male-female performance difference of exactly 11 per cent in the 1980s - and 12 per cent today. Is this just a coincidence, or does the 11-per cent enhancement of blood oxygen in males produce the 11-per cent improvement in running speeds? Since oxygen is needed to furnish most of the energy required for endurance exercise, some scientists have suspected that the 11-per cent oxygen difference is the key factor behind male-female performance variation.

Exercise scientists Stephen Seiler and writer Steven Sailer mention in the May-June edition of the internet publication Sportscience News "two other key female 'deficiencies' - less muscle mass and smaller hearts than men, even after correction for smaller body size." (The Gender Gap 1: Women are getting slower; men are getting faster?)

Conclusion: The qualifying standard differences between men and women are probably about right.
"Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times."

Personally, I'd vote for lowering the standards across the board--for everyone. Allowing fewer women clearly doesn't solve the problem.

Note: I have added the distribution of male / female finishers for Boston 2010 in the image immediately to the left, for purposes of discussion. If anyone has the full data records of all 22K+ Finishers they'd be willing to share, please DM me in twitter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Marathon Pace Session on LBTT

When my alarm went off, I nearly couldn't find it to turn it off I was sleeping so deeply. What is it with morning long runs, anyway? How about a nice Saturday Afternoon long run? My will forced my body into action every step of the way, until I realized I was not only really, really tired, but I was also slightly nauseated. By the time I actually pulled into the parking lot, I had to remind myself that how I felt at the beginning of a run historically played no part in how the run was going to go. I've pulled into that very lot feeling like the energizer bunny, and had my worst long run; and I've felt horrible and ended up pulling it off. Let's just see what I had before setting myself up for a predictable self-fulfilling prophecy.

My long-suffering running buddy, Travis, was of course early and waiting. At 34F, he hops out in a T-shirt and shorts looking fresh and comfortable, while I'm in head-to-toe under-armor and have hot hands tucked in my gloves and worried how long it might take to die of hypothermia. I hope it's quick.

The goal: two mile warm-up and eleven at 8:24. The first two miles come with effort. I push the pedal down the instant we hit the third mile, and by the first quarter, we are still averaging above 8:24. This isn't looking good. I press harder, and think to myself, how on earth can I hold this for eleven miles, much less one? But, as we approach the last stretch before we turn around at two-and-a-half, Travis says, "Hey, what's the goal here, 8:00s?" I look at my watch and we've dropped the average for the mile to around 8:16 (making it up a bit), but apparently we're running at 8:00 for the moment. He watches the instant pace; I only watch the overall average for the mile. This is going to work out all right.

Eventually, we find it and I feel really good. We decide after the single break after five miles that we'll go out four and back, no other stops. We think we've planned this four out into the wind and four back with the wind at our backs. At around mile seven, we pass a group of solid runners, and one extends his white-gloved hand out. I'm pumped with how great I feel and decide we're going to high-five. I realize I'm delirious. But I know by now I'm going to kill this run. The high-five seemed appropriate.

Somehow, the wind shifted or we got it wrong and the turn back was into the wind. But, I've locked in the pace and we hold it steady anyway. We surge a bit for the last mile, which ended up being the fastest. Just a bit of extra credit there. At more than fifty miles for the week; and not a thing hurting--things are looking really good for Houston, ten weeks from tomorrow.

Marathon Pace on LBTT Garmin Connect - Details