The Roads Scholar Diaries

In addition to the generous support of MarathonGuide.com and Brooks, The Road Runners Club of America helped play an integral role in my progress and athletic success in 2010. As one of this year’s Road Scholar Grant recipients, I was fortunate enough to receive financial assistance to use towards my development as a post-collegiate runner. As the year winds down, grant recipients are asked to write about their running careers since the time we applied in May. In these past 7 months, with the help of the Roads Scholar Grant, I have undergone a total metamorphosis as a runner. As I reflect back on my many racing adventures from 2010, I appreciate the role the RRCA played in my transition from an overzealous road racer– more casually referred to as a “road whore”– to a focused professional marathoner.

I remember having mixed emotions back in May, only days after I had anxiously submitted my Roads Scholar application. The excitement from my debut marathon in January had dissipated, and nagging injury problems during February had quelled my hopes of immediately building on January’s success. It came as a grave disappointment to indefinitely postpone all my racing plans, and I did not know how long my recovery would be. Weeks went by and I would continually test out my legs only to discover marginal improvements that were quickly reversed (in hindsight, I should have rested my body more from running while I was hurt). It was not until after Easter that I was finally able to run pain-free again each day, which came as a big relief. Finally healthy, I hastily resolved to jump back into racing as soon as I could, feeling an exigency to make up for all the racing opportunities that I had missed in early Spring.

So two weeks after formally resuming training, I traveled to Spokane for the Bloomsday Run. As a competition that is included annually in the Professional Road Running Organization (PRRO) Circuit, the Bloomsday 12K attracts a world-class international field each year. For me, it was pretty high-profile race to start a comeback with, however the very kind and hospitable race organization had me enthused to return to Spokane for a second year in a row. As I lined up for the race start downtown on Riverside Avenue, I saw the all the waves of runners lining up behind us and my pre-race jitters had once again returned. I thought to myself, it has been too long! Even with the electric feel of racing again, I ran a very conservative first half and moved my way up to finish 16th place overall and 4th American with a time of 36:44. It was an encouraging result, and my first time running under 5:00 mile pace in over 3 months. Going into the race, my fitness level had been a complete mystery to me, and thus I had soared over the low standard that I had set for myself. I was so enthralled with the result that I ran 10 more miles cool-down after the race to get in some “bonus” training.

Regardless of my Bloomsday result, I had planned to follow up with another race 2 weeks later– in San Francisco at the ING Bay to Breakers 12K. While also known for recruiting a very competitive international field, the Bay to Breakers is more widely renowned for its unique and festive race atmosphere. As excited as I was with this next racing opportunity, I also jumped at the chance to visit my sister and her husband, who live in the Bay. It was a quick weekend and I hardly spent any time with my feet up. The day before the race, I ran a brisk 12 miles around Crissy Field, went out to lunch with Beth and Matt for a delectable raw vegan meal at Café Gratitude and then spent a few hours strolling through the hippie shops in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The next morning I rolled up and down the streets of San Francisco and into Golden Gate Park to finish 11th overall (and 3rd American) in 36:51. I felt it was another encouraging result, given that I was running into a headwind while being pelted with flying tortillas and nearly tripping in the first hundred yards over a pantless man carrying a briefcase. My experience validated the fact that Bay to Breakers is a race like no other.

Seven days after shivering through 12 kilometers in a singlet and shorts in the windy Bay area, I was 3 time zones away, running clear of my competitors in a hot and humid Medved Lilac 10K. It was a last-minute decision to visit home and run this race.  In March, I had planned a trip back to Rochester to defend my St. Patrick’s Day 5-mile title, although those aspirations were hampered by my ongoing ailments. As if returning to Rochester and winning upstate NY’s largest 10K wouldn’t be redeeming enough, the Lilac 10K was the only major race in my hometown that I hadn’t won (or competed in). With past champions like John Tuttle, Keith Brantley and Chris Fox, I was anxious to add a Lilac victory to my running résumé. Additionally, a great deal of pride and prize money were at stake. After a mile of inconspicuously observing the other athletes in our whittling lead pack, I pushed by the Ethiopian favorite and soloed home the final 5 miles. It was far from a graceful victory and I remember gritting it out for the final mile and a half, heading up a few rolling hills on the return into Highland Park and winning in a modest time of 30:09. Ten miles cool-down and an hour later, I was star-struck shaking hands with Dick Beardsley at the awards ceremony. Eight hours later, I was back in Flagstaff feeling over-exhausted and numb from travel.

By then, my racing appetite had grown insatiable. If I found a race with prize money and a means to get to the starting line, it was on my radar. In fact, I was committing to races without thinking about how I could train for them (the perfect example being the Mt. Washington Road Race). It probably would have been better for me not to include hard workouts between weekend races, and yet I was running mid-week workouts with the same intensity and volume as during my Phoenix marathon training.

The month of June tested my endurance as much with travel as it did with racing. In the first weekend I flew out to Des Moines, IA for a 20K. As we lined up en masse at the Saylorville Dam under torrential rains, I noticed this small-town road race with a generous prize purse was not the well-kept secret that I thought it would be. It took me 10 miles to catch enough race casualties to make my first trip to Iowa a relative success, as if earning prize money delineated success from failure. I didn’t think any more about my race, and blocked out the fact that it was my slowest 20K result on record.

The weekend after Iowa’s Distance Classic, I flew back east for 2 races on the New England running circuit: the Litchfield Hills and Mt. Washington Road Races. In the days before Litchfield while I was in Flagstaff, I ran a debilitating mile repeat workout on Snow Bowl Road that left me feeling largely under the weather by the time I arrived in the sticks of Connecticut. However, thanks to the friendly locals and other visiting athletes, I was distracted enough not to dwell on my lethargic state. The race proved to be a dogfight though, and I was part of a large front group as we entered the trail portion of the course. I pushed hard at the front while Julius Kiptoo, who I had met and raced at Bloomsday, patiently bided his time. I  remember relinquishing the lead as we passed a cemetery, and Julius pulled ahead with the ominous and steep hill on Gallow’s Lane just ahead. The effort up Gallow’s (a foreshadowing of my Mt. Washington experience) was extremely difficult and incredibly taxing, which resulted in my dropping 2 positions in the final mile.  It was neither a great result, nor an overly-disappointing run. However in the following days, my sore throat evolved into a deep congested cough and a headache. Against better logic, I jumped on a Greyhound Bus to Vermont to put the nail in my coffin…

The surprising news came days after I had arrived back in Flagstaff, still a little congested and completely disillusioned by my mountain running debacle. I received a call from Jean Knaack of the RRCA, and was pleasantly taken aback by her news of my selection as a Roads Scholar. When I had submitted my application for the Grant, I had doubted my legitimacy as a candidate, given how many post-collegiate athletes were healthy and running well on the roads. At the same time, I had remotely hoped that my marathon debut had not been totally eclipsed. It came much to my surprise that I was named one of the five finalists. To be recognized as a Roads Scholar was not only an honor, but it marked a turning point for me. I knew the Grant would provide me with the financial resources to focus on my training without getting caught up in chasing prize purses every weekend, as I had been doing. During June, I had committed to run in October’s U.S. Marathon Championship in Twin Cities. I recognized that the only way I was going to succeed at a U.S. Championship– and particularly in the marathon– would be if I directed my focus towards the preparation. This Grant would enable me to do that.

I finished up my racing in early July, returning to Iowa for a second place finish at the Fifth Season 8K, and ran on fumes a week later in my final race at the Utica Boilermaker. Just as it had been for 3 months, my race performances were consistent, but far from exceptional. I was in dire need of a break from racing, and just needed time to train and work on my craft as a marathoner.

The summer flew by, and I was responding quickly to the workouts Coach Jack had given me to prepare for Twin Cities (he used a training schedule he adapted from working with 2:23 marathoner Lisa Martin). While training progressed, I had started getting blood work done to monitor my hematological values. It was interesting to have this data as feedback, and develop a more scientific understanding of how my body was responding to my training. My blood work also confirmed that I was taking in and sustaining adequate levels of nutrients from my vegan diet (compelling data for me personally that disproved the common misconceptions about veganism).

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, I incorporated a few races into my marathon program to work on running hills (Snow Bowl Road and Jerome) and racing under tough conditions (Parkersburg). These select races really helped to keep my routine dynamic, and I appreciated the moderate exposure to competition while training remained as the primary focus. Both Snow Bowl and Jerome were nice confidence builders, where I was able to run away from my competitors and redeem myself as a climber. Parkersburg was in every sense a “rust-buster,” where I had to manage myself in difficult racing conditions against tough competitors, and simply experience the feeling of “grinding the gears.” After those races, I went into the Twin Cities Marathon as a stronger hill runner and felt more capable of handling increased levels of discomfort. I can conclude without any doubt that shifting my focus from racing to training during the Summer helped me make the podium at Twin Cities this Fall and qualify for next year’s World Championships.

Thanks to the RRCA Roads Scholar Program, I was able to make major strides towards the end of 2010 and in my second marathon. I felt that their supporting my continuing education as a marathoner has helped bring me closer to realizing my potential, particularly when I am focused and thinking of my running career in a more long-term context. As I enter 2011 I will be taking my new perspective with me, instilled with the belief that I can and will break through, as many tenacious Roads Scholars in the past have. But I will always look back on this year fondly and with gratitude, remembering how and where it began, and those who made it possible.

Again I am reminded that the journey is more important than the destination.

–JDE

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