Friday, August 9, 2013

Iron girl: the magic is in the metal

I wrote a couple days ago about suddenly getting (relatively) fast. I have been really pondering what could have brought this about. While it's true that the way you get better at running is to run, this change has been extreme. I have shaved a full two minutes off my mile at times during casual runs. I run a bit harder, yes, but the fact I can run a bit harder and sustain it--for far for up to 3.3 miles--is telling in itself.

It was my 5K Saturday when it happened--when I heard the magic "ten minutes..." in my headphones. That I had completed a mile anywhere with a 10 in it told me something. One of my running friends commented to me once that "ten minute miles are the stuff of dreams." I agree. Ten is fast. I reiterate that the reason we may think it's normal is that those are the numbers we always hear. We only hear about the under 10-minute mile runners because they win. In smaller races the 10 minute mile runners might win. We don't hear about the normal people who run in the middle of the pack and finish well. But that's what normal is.

So Saturday I was stunned. It was hot. It was somewhat hilly. Those two factors alone slow people down. What was I doing shooting off like a cannon?

Sunday I got up to run again--late. So hot. I was certainly slower than Saturday, but not as slow as most post-race tired runs. Then Monday. Even faster. And then Tuesday. Bam. I nailed it. Fastest 5K of my life outside of a race--in 80 degrees in my hilly neighborhood. That's when I knew something had given. Wednesday was my rest day because I have ballet Tuesday nights and I will normally teach at 8 a.m. Wednesday, so it was logical. But I couldn't stand it. After work, I went back to the university and to the indoor track, where I PRed my mile--in just over 9 minutes.

So what changed it? Training in the heat and hills? Absolutely. That has helped and will help. This fall I will be better. Just as I was ready for spring because I didn't wimp out in the cold winter, even when I was so cold I couldn't warm up. I'm thinking of two 8-milers I did where I never got warm after eight miles. I couldn't afford the nice clothes I needed for cold, but I couldn't afford not to run, so I ran anyway. I ran with a Facebook banner that said "A strong spring is earned in the winter." And so it was.

But cutting two minutes off a casual mile isn't likely just training. And in my case I think it was iron.

The night I got to town I went to a running meeting. I don't generally care for running groups. I am a solo runner and the only time I like to run with people is in races, but I went to hear it, perhaps hoping I would like it and want to connect more. The speaker was a running coach who the weekend before had run 3 5Ks and won all three--he's one of those. He was talking about iron levels at some point--about days he had been feeling sluggish and how he got his checked. I thought about my own sluggishness--which isn't just being tired or lazy. You know when your body itself is physiologically not performing and it's not because you stayed up too late or ate junk. Still, I had been tested in the past--years ago, but I am one that every test always comes out okay. I am so very healthy (and thankful for my health) usually that when something is wrong it just sticks out big time.

Later I bought a cheapo iron supplement. I wasn't spending a ton of money if I didn't need it. Allegedly if I had a deficiency it would be obvious. For a couple weeks I took one every night. Then I upped it to two. A lot of people say cheap vitamins are worthless, but that's actually not what lab tests show (and no, I am not interested in your multi-level marketing special patented running formula vitamins for 9 times the price I am paying now, but thanks) when they are run. Usually they end up being about the same, but iron does have to be absorbed right, so I had somewhere upped it to three, I think the week before. I won't go into details here in a public blog, but I had begun to have some physiological side effects of taking iron (normal ones, not bad ones) which I actually thought were the result of my taking extended antibiotics for my one non-healthy area, my sick tooth. It was about then that I suspect it was beginning to work.

The night before my record breaking 5K, I took four iron tablets. I will do stuff like that before a race, more out of superstition. I.e. you do not need to carbo load before a 5K--three miles does not need extra carbohydrates--but I do it anyway. It's all psychological. I often take one extra inhaler puff, though two is all that is ever needed. So I took one more iron tablet.

It took me a few days to put it together. But I think it's the iron. Plus, if I am taking a cheaper one, it's harder to absorb possibly--still good but it might take an extra one. And last night I did some research. I found a really interesting article with supporting academic research studies. If you go to this page from the National Institutes of Health, you can read this overview of iron supplementation.

Here's the magic section that floored me:

Women. Distance runners. That would be me, twice over. And though I am not a vegetarian, I do have a diet that leans more toward that. I do not eat a lot of red meat, and my other meat portions are small. It made perfect sense. Even if I would have tested okay in the past, I am depleting more. Duh. Duh. Duh.

One of the studies cited by the NIH is this one. I have not read the entire study yet because I will have to obtain it via my university since it will be in a database, but it supports the athletic premise of the need for more iron by conducting a study on the iron depletion of competitive swimmers.

It is possible to get too much iron. If you feel slow and sluggish, taking a lot of iron supplements will not make you magically fast. It could actually hurt you. This post is my experience and I haven't even confirmed it yet biologically, though I would probably wager a bet on it at this point. But you cannot generalize someone's experience; I am simply sharing it in case you want to be tested if you are a very regular distance runner and possibly do have long-term unexplained sluggishness. I have not had health insurance so my options to test my iron levels correctly did not exist. I can now, but I won't go off the supplement. However, if I test just fine on it, then that will say something in itself. My point here is that taking iron won't make you faster or stronger if you don't have a depletion (and unless you are running a lot, you probably didn't make extra depletion happen, but I do run enough that I would). So before you try this, get checked out and also read up on iron toxicity. But the bottom line for me is that it seems to have solved a problem. I had noticed I was getting more sluggish more often, which seemed unusual since that's usually an off and on thing. Everyone has sluggish days. Without questions, that is normal. Most likely as I was establishing a normal routine again and pushing my body harder, that's what was going on. Adding the iron deficiency with the consistent training in the heat and on hills was probably just a formula all together to help me. 

Tomorrow I have a longer run and I am going to purposely do it slower. But I am doing it with the iron! Last night I ordered more from the company I prefer to use when I find a good vitamin. If it works, it works. And for me, it sure seems to be a key. 

This week my runs have been incredible--and I don't just mean the speed. I mean, I have felt like a cannon blasted out of a cave that flies down the road. I beam with delight at the act of running. There are moments I forget I am running and my arms are swinging and I feel like I am flying down the road. Suddenly I feel like Iron Girl.

Iron Girl in Pink Magic, of course.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

And then in the hottest week of August I got fast

And then in the hottest week of August I got fast. Okay, fast is relative. But if you compare where I was a few months ago to this week, you could be an Olympic runner and would still call me fast—compared to myself, which is the point of running. I have dubbed this The Most Important Week of My Running Life. There are many reasons for that but most of them revolve around working full time again and having as very full life I have not had since I began running. And I started it with a bang.

After PRing in a 5K race Saturday, I haven’t let up. If you ask me how fast I run, I generally won’t tell you—because it’s not about numbers and I don’t like arbitrary assignments. I am not “fast” by competitive definitions. I won’t win anything more than an age group place in a very small local race—if that. I am not a speedster, and I don’t want to be dismissed by people who don’t actually know anything about running or who only know people who run at their speed. The 14 minute milers think you are bragging and the 8 minute milers think you are pokey.

You know what I am? I am me.

I am a committed and dedicated runner who has found life and breath in running when it left me other ways. And so when I say fast, I mean Susan got fast, not that Susan is a fast runner. And there is a decided difference. The great thing is the one that matters is the one where I got fast. Sunday I ran faster than average for the weather, but slower than the race, more normal. Monday I went way faster. And yesterday I ran my fastest ever three miles on the road outside of a race, stunning myself.

Seriously, I had no idea how I did it. I ran a perfect 5K “casual” run, with negative splits (getting faster every mile). They were perfect splits too, like some crafted and coached run. Last night I had two ballet classes, which I have decided make Wednesday a perfect rest day this semester. But I had a bit of a hard time after ballet last night. And then this afternoon as well. And so I coped the only surefire way. I don’t really have close friends I can call in most difficult times—people don’t talk on the phone much—most of them are so busy with their families, especially on evenings and weekends, which, like the rest of the world, are my only free times too. And I don’t even have casual friends I can go get yogurt with to kind of just muddle through stuff since I am brand new to town. So I did the only thing I know to do—I ran. Though my calves were crazy sore from pointe class and all those roll through-relev├ęs, I decided I needed to go back to the gym.

I hadn’t done weights in over a week and I thought maybe a quick mile around the track would be a good idea, to see what I could do. I had used Nike Plus on “indoor mode” last time I was at the track, and I was sure it was wrong, but as I read about it people said it did a good job, so I went to a treadmill first and checked them against each other. If anything, the app trailed ever-so-slightly behind the treadmill. It actually worked! So I took off—on the outside lane—there were people walking anyway, but the outside lane is for “Running” and the middle for ”Jogging.” Last time I did the jogging lane, out of respect for any real runners, but I decided a sub-10 minute mile counted as real running and tore off around the outside. The truth is, I think I went an extra lap, or at least part of one, but I stuck to the Nike readout. Nine minutes and six seconds.


Me. If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed it. Never in a million thoughts did I think I could do that. It’s easier indoors—flat, rubberized surface, controlled temperature. I could not do that outdoors. Yet. But I had 10-something minute miles in my race Saturday—and it was USATF certified, so I know I am not fooling myself. That was a slightly hilly and very warm race. And I can always run indoors at least a minute faster, but still. Without question, I could pull off a sub 9-minute indoors at this point. But I want to break 10 outdoors.

People, I am 5 feet tall—and I am still “chubby.” Extra weight slows you down. That is a fact physiologically, the same way increased temperatures slow you down. People can get all know-it-all about running and how “they” don’t need to slow down or “they” used to run fast when they were fat or whatever they want but the facts don’t change (and those attitudes are dumb anyway because you can never compare two individual runners)—but you can argue physiology and that tells me when it is 50 degrees out and I weigh less, I will be faster, all other things equal.

When I started running I was carrying probably at least 40 extra pounds with me. You try to run down the road carrying four large sacks of potatoes on your back and tell me you are just as fast and I will laugh in your face. So what’s another 20 pounds or whatever going to do? I don’t know how fast I will be able to be one day. Fast is definitely relative and I don’t have all the genetics that do determine some of it, but you can also defy genetics to some degree. Sub-2 hour half? I am not counting on it. 7 minute mile? Maybe in several months. I don’t have any idea.

All I know is that today I wanted to throw everything else out of my life besides running and just run—all the time. I ran 16 minutes miles a few times in January, 14 was pretty normal much of the time) and today I ran just about 9. Really? What could I do if I worked harder if this is what I did in the absolute hottest week in August. Maybe I ran indoors today but I didn’t run indoors the last few days.

I love running because you get out of it what you put into it. In relationships, for example, you may love and love and be rejected. Or you may want to care more than another person cares. In running, the more committed you are, the more it is welcomed. Running accepts what man rejects.

So in this week, The Most Important Week of My Running Life, I am proving what’s important to me. Simultaneously, I am coping with difficult personal change. Running is a miracle. Plain and simple. Sometimes I think there is too much to handle at once, and then I run, and I think, I can take this world on, me and my feet. By ourselves. I don’t need a friend to call or a gelato date, I just need Pink Magic. Sometimes when I run, I believe it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

do it for love

You and I, we’re not the same kind of runner. You see, I love running. I love pretty much all of it. I loved it before I knew it was a magic weight loss pill. I loved it before I saw my renewed energy. I loved it when three miles was a long way.

You and I, causal runner, are not the same kind of runner because my week isn’t complete without 20 miles of running. It matters. It matters so much I will re-prioritize almost anything else for my run.

You and I, over-thinking runner, are not the same type of runner because when the feet hit the road, that’s not analysis time for me.

You and I, fair-weathered runner, are not the same type of runner because I’m going to run whether it’s 0 degrees or 100 degrees,. I am going to hate the extreme conditions of both and I may even get sick in the 100, but it won’t stop me from what I love. I will still love that I ran. I have never regretted a run.

See, I love my stats, and I love to stare at the numbers from my runs, but when I hit the road, all I care about is the road and as far as I can go. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to analyze my plans whole running. I don’t want to stare at my Garmin and slow or quicken my pace. I just want to run. Yes, I want to get better, but that’s the magic of running—if you do it you get better at it.

Remember a few months ago I wrote about how if you don’t like running you should find another sport? I said:

If you can’t have fun running, then don’t run.
I feel more strongly about that than ever. It’s August and I don’t live in Alaska. I am also, apparently, ultra-sensitive to heat and prone to literal heat exhaustion. And I haven’t missed a run. That’s love. It’s not a training plan—in fact, I am realizing that I can’t train for fall long runs because of the physical limitations of the level of heat--it's been hard but my mileage hasn't suffered. I find a way. It’s not weight loss. Come on, there are so many exercises to help you lose weight. Zumba, for Pete’s sake. Do that 5 days a week and you will probably be skinner faster than running.

See, running is so many wonderful things, but for me, it’s really my best friend—the one thing I can always count on in a world of inconsistency. You don’t need equipment or a coach or a plan or analysis. While I do things like analyze my stats, that’s not the purpose of what I do.

Running is getting more popular by the minute, and I think the attention is great, but a runner runs—when it’s a fad and when it’s not. When it’s hot or when it’s cold. When there’s a race or when it’s just a normal day.

Today I got up before dawn, on the first day of a long, and what will be very hard on me mentally, week—and I ran a 5K. Because I could. Because I can run. Because my feet work and it makes my heart come alive like nothing else. Because I needed to run for myself.  I was more tired today. I am more tired now.

But I will get up again tomorrow and do it again.

I rest on rest days, not because I don’t feel like running. Honestly, I will be surprised if I have rest days very much once it’s cool again. The heat has been very hard on me; it has tested everything I am made of. And I have won.

There are so many runners who have stories like mine, all different details but the same theme. I am like them. I am the runner who found hope in my feet, on the open road. I am the runner who was wanted on the streets, and who found life even in the dead of winter. I am not casual, I am not an analyst, I am not fair-weathered. I am a runner because I run. I am a runner because I love to run. That's the kind of runner I am. And that's the only kind I want to be.