Pre-Race Report: Allstate Boston Half Marathon (13.1)

allstate_half_topThis weekend’s race is serving two purposes: first, it’s a dress rehearsal for next month’s Bay State Marathon, my ‘A’ race this season. Second, it’s breaking up the 20 week training plan I’ve been on for the marathon. (If I use this plan again, I’d cut it down to 16 weeks. ) Racing is fun and a good litmus test to see if all the miles, tempos and intervals are paying off.

The Course
The race is actually at Suffolk Downs a horse race track in East Boston, not the city proper. The half marathon course is an out and back course that hugs the coast up toward the north shore. Should be nice views, but could be cold and windy off the water if the weather is bad. Right now it looks good (after a surprise burst of heat this week).

Pre-race Plan
As a dress rehearsal for the marathon, I want to test out my pre-race routine (this race starts at 7:30, the marathon at 8),  and nutrition.

During the race, I want to focus on early pacing. I need to keep the pace under control. My two previous halves, I’ve been too aggressive early and really paid for it in the last third. I know I will pay double if I burn too many matches early in a marathon. I want to finish strong. After the halfway mark, if I feel good, I’ll let go and run by feel. If not, I’ll keep pacing and treat the day as a catered training day.

I also want to test out clothes and shoes. After running the past two years in more minimal shoes, I found my feet aching after long runs and recently switched to a, still neutral, but more padded shoes (New Balance 750v2). We are still getting used to each other. A little worried about a persistent hotspot on my right foot.

Finally, I want to practice my nutrition. I’ve been pretty consistent during my long runs with the gels, food, salt pills and blocks, and have not had any issues, but want to put them through a race environment. Along with the fuel and race belts.

1. Practice my race routines

2. Stay on pace early

3. Finish strong

4. Set a half PR

5. Smile/Have fun

1:37:22 – I actually set a half marathon PR last week during a 16 mile long run, lowering it almost two minutes, from 1:40:52 to 1:38:46, so I know the training is paying off. If I can find that flow again, I think I can drop it even further.

Race Review: James Joyce Ramble 10k

Costumed readers
Costumed readers

The James Joyce Ramble is a 10k (about 6.25 miles for you non-metric fans) road race held in Dedham, Massachusetts, a town roughly fifteen miles south of Boston. It’s a race with some history (this year was the 30th running) that attracts a wide and diverse field that typically numbers around two thousand. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve ran it. The unique aspect of this race is that the course is lined with costumed performers reading from Joyce. Really. It adds a little bit of a surreal atmosphere. It’s also the only race I know of that starts with a gong.


The race itself starts at the Endicott estate, which is a large, mostly open area surrounding an estate house on a residential street. It’s actually a great space for post-race festivities, but can get a bit cramped and bottle-necked if you are one of the two thousand registering on race day pickup or trying to find a parking spot. There are options to pick up the Friday and Saturday before (the race is on Sunday), both on-site and off. If you can swing it, I’d recommend that approach rather than on race day. You don’t want to wait in line for your bib/chip then go right back into a line for the port-o-pots (there’s always lines).

I opted to register (avoiding the ‘convenience’ charge of registering online) in person and pick up on the Friday prior to the race at an off-site shopping mall. This had worked well for me in past years, but this time it sort of backfired. This year the race was also serving as the US 10K Masters Championship and it must have swelled the field and resources a bit. By the time I made it over to register after work, they had run out of timing chips. I was able to register, but had to swap my temporary bib for a chipped bib on race day sort of defeating the whole point of pre-race registering and avoiding any leg draining race day lines.


After the gong...
After the gong…

Race Day
The leisurely 11 a.m. start makes fueling on race day less of a challenge than the early morning races. I ate a typical breakfast. A bowl of cereal with coconut milk and an English muffin with almond butter at 7 along with a cup of coffee. Driving to the race I had a banana and sipped some water. Ten minutes before the start I ate 2 dates. That was it. You don’t need to stress too much on a 10k with nutrition just make sure the tanks are topped off. My typically strategy is not to get cute and just do what has worked in the past on regular weekend training days.

As mentioned above, the residential area start can make parking a challenge. This year, it appeared some of the surrounding business on the closest commercial strip were also patrolling their lots to keep runners from parking there. If you can get there early, there are limited on-site spots otherwise be prepared to hunt down one of the limited spots nearby and walk a bit, just the thing you want to do before a 10k!

Luckily, the bib swap ended up being a non-factor as they had plenty of volunteers to register and help runners.

Despite numerous port-of-potties, that were strategically laid out around the edge of the estate, lines were still long, but not unbearable. I’ve seen much, much worse.

Weather this year was warm for the end of April in the Northeast with temps around 70, bright sun and some humidity. Not awful, sounds nice actually, but not ideal for most folks coming off four months of snow and ice. Two weeks after the marathon bombing there was also a noticeably increased police and security presence.


Tougher than it looks!

This is not an easy course. Just looking at the elevation map might not make it look like much, but don’t be fooled. While most of the first half is downhill, the second half is decidedly uphill with two steep rollers back-to-back right past the halfway mark that really take a bite out of your legs. If that wasn’t punishment enough the final half mile to the finish is a lung-crushing, gradual climb, as well.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the residential street start makes for a cramped and slow start. If you plan on trying to run fast it’s worth moving over to the start line early and staking out a spot near the front and left side of the street.


My Plan
Knowing that those twin hills were looming, my plan was to go out conservatively, let the tight pack at the start pace me a bit, attack those hills and hang on for that uphill finish. In terms of nutrition, I had one more date that I carried in case I needed a boost of sugar (didn’t need it) and with water stops almost every mile, I took it as needed (I think I hit three of the stops).



Good splits
Good splits

My plan to go out easy and reverse split the last half of the race didn’t really materialize, but not in a totally bad way. My mile splits were remarkably even for a shorter, hilly race. I’ve seen some big swings in past splits. I think the weather also had an effect. One downside to the late morning start was the noon day sun. Most of the race offers little sustained shade and it takes a toll running on the hot asphalt especially early in the year. So overall, while I didn’t quite execute my plan (or hit a PR for this race), I was happy with my results given the course and the conditions.

159   84/394 M2039  44:25   43:56  7:05   Mike Donohue (2013)

163    80/444 M2039   43:38  43:33  7:01  Michael Donohue (2012)

217    97/362 M2039   46:51   46:17  7:27  Michael Donohue (2010)

(Ack! I think I’ve blocked the 2010 race from my memory. Can’t remember what happened.)


After party

Post Race
One place this race really shines is the after party. The large green space finally pays dividends as runners and spectators are able to spread out, enjoy live music, free (good) beer (Harpoon), quality snacks (from Whole Foods) and a pasta buffet. It’s a nice family friend atmosphere that invites you to linger and hang out with fellow runners.


This is a race I plan to continue running for many years in the future. It’s a well-organized race with a challenging course, early in the season that really gut checks where you are in your training. To top it off, the post-race food, beer garden and family friendly atmosphere makes it a good race to bring the whole family. Definitely recommended to any Northeast runner.



The start of my 2013 is here

I’m looking out my window and fresh snow is falling on the existing three feet high snowbanks along the driveway and I’m questioning the sanity of starting my season in February while living in the Northeast. In past years, I’ve eased into the season with 5Ks in March, typically around St. Patty’s Day, and typically with a race that featured a pint at the end. This year, perhaps to keep me motivated to up the annual mileage or just to avoid using my paternity leave as a crutch to slack off, I chose the Old Fashioned Ten Miler in Foxboro tomorrow as my first race of the 2013 season. One part of me (the type A part) is looking at it as a challenge. Snow, wind, black ice, sub-zero temps? Bring it on. The other part of me is itching to scrap it and log a few miles on the treadmill in the basement next to the percolating warmth of the boiler room.

A Quick Recap of 2012

First, a quick look back. The further I get away from 2012, the more mellow I become about the results. After the last 5k in December, I felt pretty down on the season despite setting two PRs and finishing another half marathon. My big goal for the first part of 2012 was strength and speed work with the benchmark being breaking 20:00 for a 5k. Believe it or not, of the 6 5k’s I ran in 2012, I ran each between 20:00 and 20:12. If you’re feeling generous, you might give me that one. I hit 20:00 on the nose, but never dipped under it. A new PR, but not a gold star for my goal.

The second PR was in the Finish at the 50 10k at Gillette stadium on a pretty hot July 3rd. I finished 16th in my age group and posted a 42:39. Not too shabby, but I put a mental asterisk next to this one as the first kilometer or so is on a serious downhill, so a steep hill-aided PR.

The big goal for the second half of ’12 was completing my second half marathon and improving on my first time at Rock N Roll Providence (1:40:52). I did finish the race (the flat Smuttynose Rockfest in Hampton), but failed to top my Providence time as both IT bands tightened painfully around mile 10 (up to that point, I was very pleased with my nutrition and pacing) and the last three miles were finished at a hobbling limp. Net result? Two minutes slower than Providence (1:42:50). Errr.

Goal Setting for 2013

2013 includes my first tri
2013 includes my first tri

Time to put the 2013 goals in writing to ensure a little accountability.

  1.  First Tri
    The big goal for ’13 is my first triathlon. I chose a sprint one, USAT certified, but with a capped field that I hope will provide both a gentle introduction to the sport and a fun experience. This is local and in mid-July. Ramping up cycling and re-learning to swim should be interesting learning experiences.
  2. Full marathon or Multiple half marathons
    Haven’t completely made up my mind about this one. Given that we have a new baby and being cognizant of how much time it would take to train the way I’d like for a full marathon, it makes me leery of stepping up to the full this year. If I chose a full, I’d aim for one in mid-October. Maybe the Bay State. If I go multiple halves, the Ocean State Triple Crown series looks fun.
  3. Continue focus on flexibility
    I am not flexible. Never have been, but as I work to take on more endurance races and get older, I’m increasingly aware of how better flexibility can aid training, recovering and prevent nagging injuries (see the IT band issues above). Last year, I did yoga fairly regularly, I’d like to continue that and be better about consistent foam rolling on a weekly basis.
  4. Stay on a plant-based diet
    I plan to write about this more soon, but since December I’ve been eating a largely plant-based diet and really feeling the benefits in all aspects of my life: sleep, work, energy for playing with the kids, training. The plan is to keep this up for the rest of 2013.

That seems like a solid, challenging, yet achievable list.

Potential 2013 Events

Here are the events I’m eying for early in 2013.

Here are the events I’m considering now for the latter part of the 2013


So after a so-so 2012, I’m ready to push harder into 2013. It all starts tomorrow in the snow, sleet and wind.


flickr cc photo attributions: shawn allen, ella baker center, through my eyes only

5 Rules for Managing a Book Club

Diversity is key

I’m not one for small talk. I’m not good at it and I rarely see the point. All the idle chatter is time better spent reading in my opinion. Unless the talk is about books, of course. Then pull up a chair. Let me buy you a drink. If you’re the type of person that views carrying a book as a necessary escape hatch for any excursion outside your front door, then you are my people, no questions asked. There is little I like more than reading, browsing, chatting or arguing about books. Book stores are my pilgrimage and book clubs are my catnip. At my day job, the one meeting I will not view askew is the monthly book club. It’s one hour where time doesn’t drag on and business buzz words don’t choke the air. It’s my oasis in the management wilderness.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to cultivate and maintain such a swath of erudite discussion among the cubes. After two years, I’ve come to some conclusions about the best ways to run a successful book club. Continue Reading

Running a Half Marathon

5k braved the monsoon

The Half Marathon needs a better name. It sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Oh, you couldn’t do a full marathon, huh? Opted for the halfsie? By the end of 13.1 miles this past Sunday, I was quite ready to take any abuse, any insult, just to be done. I staggered across the line, legs like dead wood, chest heaving, eyes zeroed in on that finish line with a zombie-like stare. Sounds like fun, right? Why would I possibly subject myself to this? Good question.

In the days leading up to the Providence Rock N Roll Half Marathon, I asked myself this question a lot and came up with two reasons. I blame my co-worker and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. The co-worker because he innocently handed me the book and McDougall for writing a very convincing and very entertaining book that certainly made distance running seem fun and romantic. Before I go further, let me say I’m not a barefoot acolyte. I do own a pair of minimalist trail shoes and I did make a conscious decision to change my stride this year to more of a mid-foot strike to ease the burden on my knees, but please don’t attack me with do’s or don’ts of barefoot running. My advice? If you’re running without pain (or little pain) there is probably little reason to change. If you find yourself bogged down with injuries or returning to running from a long layoff, you might give the arguments in the book some thought.

The second reason was more esoteric and tangential. I play basketball once a week with a group of like minded, competitive guys. We recently switched leagues from the open league to the over-35 one. Seems rather banal, and definitely a good decision given how the 20 year-olds were buzzing by us like we were playing in cement shoes, but I think it triggered some sort of urge to still prove I could compete. Even if I was only proving it to myself. Like I said, esoteric, but better than buying a Corvette or something, right?

I wasn’t starting from scratch. I was pretty fit and had a solid base of 15-20 miles a week of recreational running. Still, I knew I needed a plan for a half marathon. Sure, I could probably wing it and complete it, but being a type A personality, I had goals and ambitions of running it well. There are numerous plans out there on the Internet for free. Pretty much a plan for every type of runner, I think. I choose Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plan for a couple reasons. First, it wasn’t overly complex. A lot of plans had days (or multiple days) dedicated to speed workouts or splits or intervals or tempo runs. Undoubtedly that would probably help, but I the more I searched the more I realized I wanted less of a plan and more of a road map on how to  ramp up to sufficient miles without risking injury. Second, I have a full-time job, a toddler and lot of other demands on my time. Higdon’s plan was flexible. It allowed for me to slot in my weekly basketball game as cross-training and for flip-flopping training days when necessary.

With the training now in the rear view mirror, I can say Higdon’s plan was successful and the right one for me.

My form at the end of the race

Let me also pass along a few tips on the physiology of long training runs. I did come to welcome these runs (proves how short term my memory is) each weekend, at least until mile 9 or so, and definitely came to recognize a certain pattern:
Mile 0 – 3: This is a good pace. Nice and easy. I can do this all day.
Mile 4 – 7: Damn! I am flying. Half marathon? Screw that, I’m going for the full monty.
Mile 8 – 11: Where did these elves and their little knives come from? Why are they jabbing me in the knees, ankles and hips? Aw, gawd, it hurts!
Mile 12 – 13: Mental boot camp. Your numb lower body is on autopilot. A death-march to the finish.

Two final things, having a time goal did help me. It gave me a tangible measuring stick to track my training progress. Second, I always thought the idea of a mantra was kind of silly, but in those last three or four miles when your mind is a blank slate of pain, they do help bring a kind of focused determination to finishing.

When & Where?
On further reflection, picking New England in August for my first attempt, was pure folly. If I had to do it again, I’d aim for September or October. Hot and humid were not just a possibility (despite the 7 am start), but a probability. Not a lot I could do about it. I had trained through August, sometimes timing longer runs at midday to acclimatize a bit. The one thing I didn’t count on? The rain.

What Happened?
Well, I did finish, but Sunday August 7th in Providence was a monsoon. And that is barely exaggerating. Fifteen to twenty mile an hour winds with driving rains for a good three quarters of the race. It did build a sense of solidarity among the five thousands that turned out, but man it was less than ideal, especially for a maiden voyage. Despite a fifteen minute delay at the start, leaving us packed and shuffling in the corral, the race was otherwise well organized on all fronts. They could have used more post-race shelter for runners, but I can’t fault them for not anticipating the storm. I would have liked to see them put the gear bags under tarps or something as finishing and picking up your soaked gear was a downer. The on-course stations, timing, and post-race recovery spread was good.

I made it around the course a few minutes under my goal time and despite some pacing issues (like an eager beaver I went out waaay too fast) will definitely be running another half again in the future. My last piece of advice? Reward yourself. Running 13 miles is nothing to sneeze at. Take a few days off recover and reward yourself. Me? I spent the next day lounging, stuffing my gut with BBQ and cupcakes.