The Mansions of Fairmount Park

Fairmount Park hills are sneaky. Like all hills, they lure your in with their trees and their soft trails and their nice views, but forget to tell you about the steep inclines, the quad-busting descents. I’m on to you, Fairmount Park hills with your mansions overlooking the Schuylkill River steeped in the grandeur of colonial America. I’m on to you.

I’ll admire the restoration of your mansions amidst decay, spying down on me from the hill above the wooded Boxer’s trail as I trudge along with screaming legs. Your vantage point is commanding with the higher ground, ignoring the city skyscrapers in your peripheral vision because you want to gaze at the river in winter, the cherry blossoms in the spring, the cyclists and runners in summer, and red leaves in the fall. No, I can’t blame you for wanting time to stand still in this idyllic setting like the time in which you were constructed.

I’ll keep one eye on you, Strawberry Mansion, Mount Pleasant, and Laurel Hill, and one eye on the trail. You know, I’ll be back on the ups and downs of the trails in spring to discover more of your contemporaries, fifteen in all. And when I return, my legs will be stronger from the hills of Fairmount Park and from the trails that encircle you.

On the Track

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Image from competitor.com

When I run on a track, I’m thankful that the hurdles are off to the side because I might suffer PTSD from running the 300 hurdles in high school. I always cleared the first few hurdles before my brain decided otherwise, and my leading right foot hit the hurdle smack in the middle of the wood that sent the back end to hit my butt. Track workouts tend to bring back these memories, but I guess the good news about running intervals on a track is that no runner is left behind. And the hurdles are stashed to the side.

In addition to a tempo run and a long run, a track workout is a great way to add overall speed for any runner. Of course, it’s not a good idea to do any of these workouts back to back because your body needs to rest in between them. Run easy in between these harder effort workouts or take a rest day, depending on your schedule.

Whether you’re a beginning or experienced runner, there are track workouts for you. On Monday, I’m coaching a Couch to 5K workout for runners as well as an interval session for more seasoned runners. Here are the workouts we’ll do below. Try them yourself, and know that I’ll keep an eye on those nasty hurdles so they won’t bother you.

Couch to 5K (Beginning Runner)

Walk for 5 minutes to warm up. Alternate running for 60 seconds and walking for 90 seconds for a total of 20 minutes. Do a 5 minute cool down walk. 1-2 miles total. This is the first week of the Couch to 5K workout; ideally, runners would do this workout three times in the first week of the 8 week program.

Easy Track Workout

Run 1/2 mile warm up (2x around the track). Run the straight parts of the track fast and jog/walk the curves of the track. Repeat for 20 minutes. Run 1/2 mile cool down. About 3 miles total.

Harder Track Workout

Run 1 mile warm up. 6x800s at 30 seconds faster than 5K race pace. Rest for 3 minutes in between each 800. Run 1 mile cool down. 5-6 miles total.

 

Brick Workout

What’s a brick workout? Don’t worry, it’s not some Crossfitter’s fantasy of running with heavy bricks and stacking them in a corner of the Box (gym); although, they’ve probably done that and called it something else. On the other hand, triathletes are a different kind of crazy, and a brick workout is a triathlete’s workout; however, even if you’re not a triathlete, many of you can incorporate it into your cardio circuits since cross-training helps you be a stronger runner and can help prevent your body from getting injured.

A brick workout is basically two cardio workouts back to back, typically cycling and then running, and it’s intended to mimic how you might feel during a triathlon. Now, unless you swim in your tri kit and it’s really warm outside where your bike is located, then you can swim and bike; however, cycling directly after a swim can be tricky even if you’re at a gym. You still have to dry off and change before hopping on an exercise bike because a pool of sweat below your bike is bad enough without the chlorinated water too. That being said, I have seen people do brick workouts where they swim and then bike at the gym.

Anyway, it’s much easier to ride the bike and then go for a run. This can be done in a gym or at home with any bike.

Here’s a typical brick workout:

Bike for 40 minutes to an hour and include 10 minutes of a warm up. In the warm up, incorporate some faster pedaling for 30 seconds and slow down the pace for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times. Do a steady ride or a tempo ride after the warm up. Your choice.

When an hour is up, change out of your bike shoes and go for a run! Go outside or on the treadmill.

The run is at an easy pace and lasts for 20-30 minutes total. Yes, your legs will feel like concrete blocks, and if you rode your bike really hard, they can and will feel like peg legs. Keep running. Your body will get used to pushing out that lactic acid.

Total time 1:20:00

Just so you know, those pictures above were taken at a triathlon in May. My brick workout reality is not so pretty now. Here’s a more accurate portrayal of the workout:

I’m inside on my road bike on the trainer where I sweat to death even with a fan blowing on me before bundling up to run outside where it’s 40 degrees or colder. I usually don’t do brick workouts with a swim followed by a bike because I’m a freak and absolutely love swimming–I’d end up skipping the bike for more pool time. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still terrified of open water swimming and getting eaten by a shark or slipping below the depths without the numerous lifeguards seeing me. Both situations are unlikely, but I still think about them. I prefer brackish water for open water swims so I can’t see anything. It’s better that way, and I swim as fast as I can. Unless, a jellyfish stops me. I hate jellyfish.

When the weather gets warmer, I’ll swim in a lake and then hop on my bike, until then I’ll be inside on the trainer and then out for a run.

Tempo Workout

I wanted to nail a tempo run, and that’s just what I did today. According to the plan, the run was a progressive tempo, increasing in pace from easy to threshold for about 30 minutes. After that, the rest of the 50 minute run was at an easy pace. For some reason, tempo runs have a tendency to psych me out: they’re slower than my race pace, but since I’m not running in a race, and I have hills to contend with in my neighborhood, I tend to doubt my ability. But I did everything I was supposed to do today, and that makes me happy.

If you want to do your own tempo run, try this workout, and adjust it to your ability. If you walk/run, warm up with walking. If you generally run, warm up at an easy run pace.

1/2 mile to 1 mile warm up run (or walk if you’re a newbie)

1/2 mile to 1 mile at a cardio pace. This is where you can talk in short sentences. Running feels easy. This is slower than marathon pace.

1/2 mile to 1 mile at endurance pace. This is where you can still talk, but it’s a little more challenging. For experienced runners, this is your marathon race pace +/- 30 seconds.

1/2 mile to 1 mile at threshold pace. You can only say a word or two at a time running at this pace. For experienced runners, this is close to your 10K race pace.

1/2 mile to 1 mile cool down. Walk or run slowly to let your heart rate come back down.

Total: 2.5 miles for newer runners; 5 miles for more experienced runners.

If you are an experienced runner and want to challenge yourself more, start with 20 seconds above your 10K race pace per mile or 30-40 seconds above your 5K race pace and then subtract 10 seconds off each mile to get faster and faster. The purpose of a tempo run is to train your body to know what racing will feel like, and the run should not last more than one hour.

A few other items about tempo runs, make sure that you do not do a tempo run after a hard track workout or before a long run. In other words, have the tempo sandwiched in between easier workouts to prevent injury and burnout.

Along the Schuylkill at Valley Forge

The river meanders through Valley Forge on a foggy winter morning. The geese’s honks break the silence, and their webbed feet leave wakes behind them.

The sky spits rain through the fog on our long run. I don’t mind.

The fog takes me to Seattle in winter where western hemlocks nod in the wind and the mountains hide in the mist. But there are only hills here with Eastern redbuds, black gums, and maples spreading bare branches to the low sky. Their roots reach down to the river that flows to the Delaware Bay into the Atlantic that holds hands with the Pacific.

If I close my eyes, I am there, tracing the northern arc of the Atlantic to the Arctic and into the Pacific where it’s raining too.

I follow the river on my run, and I can go anywhere. The rain cools my face, and I am free.

Fat Can Run Too

Have you ever seen a fat runner? I think I’ll take up running because no one who runs all the time is fat. And if there is a fat runner, they must be some kind of unicorn, defying reality. Runners are stereotypically portrayed as fit beacons of health, lean and muscular. Sadly, this was my false logic for starting to run when I huffed and puffed at age 36 while chasing my kid around the back yard. I was what you would call skinny fat. I let myself get totally out of shape, but instead of putting on tons of extra weight, my muscles turned to flab and my belly stuck out a little. But, according to most doctors, I was at a normal BMI, and no one seemed concerned.

Since I’ve been running for some time now, I’ve realized how far from the truth I had been (and I thought I was terrible in my 20s for being a know-it-all). Running is for everyone–fat, skinny, young, and old. In fact, my life goal is to be a 90 year old marathoner and triathlete–no matter how slow I get. I know people of all shapes, sizes, and ages who can kick my butt in a road race which blasts the young, lean, and muscular runner stereotype.

Just go to any local race, and you’re bound to find families running together, fat people, old people, runner friends, and of course the lean serious runners. When I last ran the Richmond Marathon in 2015, I chatted with a woman who was in her 50s, had heart issues, and was overweight. I was shocked that she continued to run, but she said it helped her maintain her fitness and she enjoyed it. In other words, she might not have made it this long if she didn’t run. I wished her well, and then she ran off ahead of me. There are stories like that from all kinds of people, and one of my favorites is from Runners’ World titled Ultra. Mirna Valerio is an ultra runner who averages 11-13 minute miles for a 50K. That is nothing short of amazing, and she’s one of my heroes. You should read the article when you’re finished with this post because she’s awesome and redefining what it means to be fit.

So, to all of you runners out there, no matter your age or your size, keep on running like a unicorn and love your body for what it can do. You’re all magic and an inspiration.

Forbidden Drive

Wissahickon in Winter

Pancake flat is the kind of terrain I love. Florida is flatter than rattlesnake roadkill. Norfolk is flatter than the rising tidewater. So, when someone says the Forbidden Drive Trail in Philadelphia is relatively flat, I take it with a grain of dirt.

Forbidden Drive begins on Northwestern Avenue and follows the Wissahickon Creek for five miles and connects to the Schuylkill River Trail via Lincoln Drive. I ran 10 miles on the trails this morning with Irene who pushes it uphill with a fierceness rarely found in a runner. With a minimum elevation of 44 feet and a maximum of 190 feet, the elevation gain was 599 feet and elevation loss was 613 feet on our morning run. I stopped to snap some photographs for this post and to catch my breath.

During the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, the Wissahickon Creek was the most industrialized waterway in the United States with mills and factories along its banks. Evidence of the dams along the river are readily visible from the trail which provides scenic overlooks in a forest setting. We passed the only covered bridge in the Philadelphia area, originally built in 1737, we ran by the Valley Green Inn, and traversed a former toll bridge with the toll house still intact. This valley is mentioned by writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Walt Whitman and artists from James Peale to Thomas Moran. I felt at home here.

Wissahickon in Summer

Before industrialization and colonial times, the Lenape called it Wiessahitkonk, which means “catfish creek” or “stream of yellowish color”. During the summer, the creek beautifully reflected the Henry Avenue bridge, but in winter I can certainly see the yellowish color. Fish are stocked in the river, but it’s not advisable to wade or swim in the water due to run-off pollution.

If you would like to support the Friends of the Wissahickon and help maintain over 50 miles of trails and keep the waterways clean, then check out the Wissahickon Trail Classic on June 3, 2017. There is a 10K run and a 5K nature hike for the non runners. To sign up, check out their website: Wissahickon Trail Classic

I’ll return to these rolling hills in this gem of a park in the heart of America’s fifth largest city.

Money for Miles

I have a problem. I am addicted to running gear and races. And, with competing in triathlons during the last three years, I have found ways to spend more money. My bike has to be the largest money hole in my basement floor: I throw money at it and find ways to drop more cash–a bike computer, trainer, aero bars, extra cup holder… you get the idea.

 

Running might be a minimalist sport (triathlons are not), but even if I didn’t do triathlons, running has a tendency of creeping up on me and yelling “surprise!” every so often. These shoes already have 500 miles on them? And so do my other ones? How much does that half marathon cost again? With racing, gear, and travel, I probably spend around $800 a year or more on running. Often times, I sign up for races almost a year in advance.

To help me save for races, the latest gear, or a family trip, I put a $1 in the jar for each mile I run. Since I run an average of 25 miles a week, it adds up quickly. I have about $186 and change in there now with some cash leftover from 2016. In 2016, I ran a total of about 1600 miles for the year. With money for miles, I choose my races carefully and only spend what I have.

The reason this works for me is because I can see what I’m saving instead of checking a balance online. My kid likes to help me count it too and will ask me if I put my money for miles in the jar. Now that’s motivation. It can be hard at times to put aside $25 or so, but I ask myself if I would have spent that cash at Starbucks instead. Then, I shut up and feed the jar.

moneyformiles

Getting Out the Door

I run outside in all kinds of weather, but that doesn’t mean I’m super dedicated and love running so much that I’m always psyched to head outdoors. The truth is I’m not. I don’t like being too hot, too cold, too wet, too anything. If every day were 55-60 degrees and partly cloudy, I’d be in heaven, so let me know if a place like that exists other than San Diego.

To get out the door, I bribe myself–you’ll enjoy the warm shower and that hot cup of coffee after the run more if you head outside, won’t you? While bribing myself with treats of coffee and often chocolate, I change into my running clothes. At this point, if I don’t run, I’ll feel ridiculous if the kid gets home from school, and I’ve been wearing my running clothes all day without running while doing the laundry, the dishes, writing training plans and blog posts like this one…

And that’s why I put my shoes on right away after changing into my running clothes. If I have my shoes on, I’m more likely to bypass petting the kitty for an hour before opening the front door. The cat always wants me to stay home–don’t listen to the cat. I should get a running dog to make sure I get outside, but dogs are a lot of work.

cats

Once outside, I start running since it’s too cold to walk, and I remind myself that I’m such a badass for being out here in all kinds of weather. And I think of past races where mother nature not only wanted to rain on my run, but hail, sleet, thunder, and snow on it too–that happened during the Cleveland Marathon, and I ran through all of it until the end of the race when the sun and wind came out.

No matter what the forecast, skip the treadmill and head outside. Let the cars splash water on you in the driving rain, let the wind blow and the snow fall, and let the blazing sun cook your head under your baseball hat. You’ll be a badass runner for it.  And nothing will stop you. Except for ice. Don’t run on ice. And lightening.

 

Snowy Running

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When I think of snow, all I would like to do is stay inside, wrapped in a blanket, drinking a cup of coffee, and reading a good book. And, on long cold runs, I imagine myself doing just that, slipping into another conscious state that I think is more real than my feet on the trail. I have to tell myself that I am really running in the cold on a snow-covered trail and there is no cup of coffee in my hand. I look around at the trees and dead leaves filleted on the rocks and realize that my running brain has tricked me once again.

The wind blows cold tears down my face mixed with snowfall from the barren branches. I sniff the snot back into my nose and squint into the snow glare. There is something to be said for the quiet that follows a snowfall–brittle branches break under my feet from the cold snap, the trail crunches like granola, and I make new footprints in the untrodden snow. The whoosh of the train nearby is clear and louder than in summertime, unmuffled by heavy green leaves.

I almost wish for an undisturbed blanket of snow so I can be the first to run though it, lie down, and make a snow-angel. Almost. For now, I’ll bundle up and dream of spring.