The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Running

Inside Meb's Win at the Boston Marathon

A month ahead of the Boston Marathon, we asked Meb Keflezighi what it would take for him to win the race where he had finished third in 2006. At first, he was coy. And then he answered: "If they let you go, you gain confidence, spread the gap, and you’re going to be home free."

Monday, against all odds, he did just that—during a mostly-solo effort that culminated in a victory and a new personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds (just two weeks before his 39th birthday). In the wake of his win, we caught up with Keflezighi to discuss exactly what was going through his head during his momentous run.

OUTSIDE: Did you plan from the outset to make a huge gap that would be impossible to close?
KEFLEZIGHI: Absolutely not!

How did you build your 80-second lead? Did you hammer or were you running steady?
Five miles into it, the pace slowed down. I said no, I’m going to make it an honest pace. Josphat [Boit of the U.S.] and I broke away after eight miles. I knew what was coming but I don’t know if he did, so—l decided to go.

How did you finally drop Boit?
4:31 or 4:30! [laughs] And he was probably slowing down. I could sense his breathing. He hit me once on the back of the foot. He apologized, but I knew that when people get tired they can’t really concentrate effectively.

You ran solo for most of the race. Is it as hard as everyone says?
Very difficult. Especially in a marathon. I’ve done it before, in a 15K, and the San Jose Half. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to go, or they miscalculated that they’re dealing with a silver medalist, a New York City champion, and fourth at the [2012] Olympic Games. At about 21 miles, I started looking back because I had no idea what was going on.

When you didn’t see anyone, did you think "Yay!" or "Uh oh"?
Both. "Yay" I think I can win it and "Uh oh" because I don’t know how many of them are will work together to catch me. My pace wasn’t outrageous. If I’m healthy, I can maintain it, but things got a little doubtful at mile 22, 23, down the hills when my quads were hurting. At 24, I felt like throwing up. Then I’m like: collect yourself. To my surprise, I was still running fast. At that point, I didn’t know if [Wilson Chebet of Kenya] was going catch me, but I thought about plan B. I kept extending the lead. Going toward Boylston, I used the curves to surge and tried to use the crowd to help me push.

Since Monday, have you talked to anyone else who was in the elite pack? Any idea why they let you get so far ahead?
I really haven’t. I talked to Nick Arciniaga [the top American finisher who placed seventh behind Keflezighi]. Nick did say something about the group—and I don’t know who was in the group. I can’t say. I wasn’t there. Abdi [Abdirahman] called me.  He said there was talk about this and that. But he just said congratulations. You did the work. If they did [try to help], I will say thank you.  At the same time, I was not in my comfort zone by any means. I was trying to extend the lead as much as I can, and trying to push the pace constantly to get to the finish line. They made a mistake and let me go early on. Racing is racing. If somebody wants to go, you can’t really them to wait.  So I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.

From what I’ve read, Ryan Hall was telling the Americans not to surge or pace a chase. But do you really think the Africans would care about it if Americans with non-threatening PRs surged?
It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up. I don’t know.  As a competitor, you can’t tell them to go this pace or that pace because there are so many guys who might say, you know what? I’m going to surge. They probably miscalculated who’s up there, and misjudged who I am. Guess what? It doesn’t matter any more.

Did you know you ran a negative split by five seconds?
I didn’t see what our halfway split was. I missed it. I asked Josphat Boit. He didn’t know. My Garmin watch said I was 13.79 or something. I was trying to do the math in my head. I just kept the same pace and said don’t worry about it—just go for the title.

What about your PR? Was that your aim?
My goal was to win the race, goal number one. Goal number two was to be on the podium.

Has anything unexpected since the Monday? Has your old sponsor Nike called?
No, I don’t think they will. But President Barack Obama called on Tuesday. He said you made America proud; it couldn’t have come at a better time; job well done. We talked for about three or four minutes.

He was president when you won the New York City Marathon, so it was his second call?
He never called me in 2009.

Have you had time to run since Monday?
I haven’t gone running yet. I can’t even walk right now. The wound on the ball of my left foot is so deep from 2007 at the Gate River Run and in 2011 the Breathe Right aggravated it. [In 2011, he ran the entire New York City Marathon with a Breathe Right strip in his shoe.] To this day, I’m still draining the blood blister and water blister. A couple doctors from the Red Sox drained it, and a doctor in New York drained it.  Coach Larsen drained it. I drained it at least seven times myself [since Monday]. I was hurting bad going through those downhills. I had to dig deep to make it happen. I’m paying for it now, but it’s such a great honor to come in first.

Are you walking around in flip flops?
I can’t do that. I have to have a cushion. I’m not stepping on it. I’m more walking on the sides. Today’s the only day, with a cushion with a hole in it, I’m walking somewhat normal. Other than that, everything is OK, I think.

Do you have another marathon in you?
[Laughs] Eh, yeaaaaaaaah, yeaah, I think there is, but I haven’t run yet.

Given the way you won Boston—planned or not—would you ever run solo for half the race again? Is that your new thing?
Why not? If I’m fit and healthy. It was a calculated, good decision. I thought a few people would go with me but they didn’t and it worked out to my advantage.

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Walk of No Shame

It’s just one of those rules. Coaches, runners, and pretty much everyone else involved in the sport have traditionally emphasized that walking isn’t an option there. But new research and training methods indicate that walking may not be a sign of weakness, but a tool for becoming an even stronger runner.

While walking can be frowned upon, incorporating it into your runs and races can prevent the onset of fatigue. Recent studies published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research show that passive-resting activities like walking can reduce heart rates in as few as 25 seconds. Even better, they can lead to better performance in ensuing legs of your run, allowing you to gain more ground than if you’d pounded along the whole time with no breaks.

Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian who now coaches runners, came up with the run-walk-run formula in 1974, when he saw an opportunity to help non-runners benefit from the sport. What began as a way to help newbies complete their first laps around a track morphed into a training program where 98 percent of its runners complete races at faster times and without injuries. Galloway credits walking with promoting the cognitive and physical control needed to make every run successful.

“Run-walk-run methods conserve energy and erase fatigue,” Galloway. “When you insert walk breaks, from the beginning of your run to its end, you never have to be out of commission.” The advice is supported by a study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, which shows that walking helps runners conserve the energy they need to complete a successful workout.

To know when and for how long to take a break, you need to know what pace you’re shooting for in your workout or race. Galloway says that if your goal is an eight-minute mile, you’ll run for four-minute intervals and walk for thirty-second ones. A nine-minute mile would require running for four minutes and walking for one.

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Real Athletes Don’t Need Wearable Tech

The popularity of wearable fitness trackers has exploded in the last two years. There are more of them now than you can shake your Fitbits at. But for all their ubiquity in the consumer mainstream, have they managed to earn a place in the hearts (and on the wrists) of real athletes? Surprisingly yes, but not in the way you’d think.

First, a point of clarification. “Fitness tracker” is an extremely broad term that could be used to describe just about any exercise gadget. For the purposes of this article, we'll use fitness tracker to define a type of non-GPS wearable device that uses accelerometers to count your steps and monitor your activity levels. Think Nike's Fuelband, various Fitbits, the Withings Pulse, the Basis Band, and the Polar Loop.

Generally speaking, these products don't track the kind of workout data that’s useful to dedicated athletes. “I think most athletes—even at the recreational level—are looking for more specific feedback pertaining directly to their training,” says Vince Sherry, co-founder of the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project and owner of Run Flagstaff. “Most runners want speed and distance.”

And those are two metrics that all of the current fitness trackers absolutely suck at delivering. Because they have no GPS, they effectively count your steps, guess the length of your stride, and then cobble together an estimated distance—which is always way off the mark. Even if the gadgets could accurately measure how far you’ve gone, they don't have a good way to deliver that information to you in real time.

Another Run S.M.A.R.T. Project coach (and Competitor Magazine's 2013 Ultrarunner of the Year), Rob Krar agrees. “You wear a wristband that provides almost no feedback while in use, then have to download to a computer or smart phone to access data? Seems like a gimmick at best and certainly not something I'd recommend to my clients.” Among ultrarunners, he hasn't seen anyone using these wearables, and added that GPS technology dominates that niche of running. 

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And yet, some athletes are starting to use the fitness trackers. Why? “Athletes are very number-oriented,” says Stacy Sims, MSc, PhD, an exercise physiologist, nutrition scientist, and the co-founder and CRO-research scientist behind Osmo Nutrition. “From a coach perspective, there is some use to them—more to identify how much people are doing and not counting so as to identify low recovery.”

Recovery is a key component of exercise and improvement, particularly when dealing with athletes, but many people don't get that the extra stuff they do in between workouts contributes to inadequate recovery. “Walking to and from the store is great for health, but that three- to four-mile round-trip is an extra load on the legs.” So Stacy has her athletes wear activity trackers in between workouts to get a better sense of how it all adds up.  

But there’s a dark side to all that data. “Having something on your wrist telling you you're not sleeping well can lead to more stress, in turn making it more difficult to sleep,” adds Sherry. “It could be a vicious cycle, especially for a runner who is overly aware of the need for proper recovery.”

Of course, if we open the door to other types of fitness trackers—GPS wrist watches, bands that count strokes as you swim, heart rate monitors, and power meters on bikes—then you’ll find plenty of athletes, from beginners to professionals, adopting the tech, and not just for training sessions. New systems promise to let NFL and soccer teams track their players in real time, regardless of whether they’re in a roofed-in stadium. A coach could see that a player is starting to run slower than normal, and know that it's time to bench them. Future wearables might be able to analyze an athlete's sweat, then relay the information in real time in order for her to address her hydration and nutrition needs.

So what’s the bottom line? As for the common, everyday wearables we're seeing advertized everywhere, well, they're great for helping the average Joe remember to get off the couch every now and then, and they're not bad for analyzing your recovery, as long as you don't get too obsessed with your numbers. In their current state, though, for athletes, they're just no match for the data you can get from a GPS watch (or even a smartphone app). If you're choosing between one or the other to help with your training, GPS is the way to go, even if it just means downloading the latest version of Runtastic on your phone.

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The Science Behind the Existentially Minded Runner

You may doubt the numbers, but according to neuroscientist and philosopher Deepak Chopra, you have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts running through your mind every single day. That’s somewhere between 42 and 56 thoughts a minute. Which means that a half-hour run gives you at least 1,260 opportunities to think about whatever you want to. Talk about mind power.

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are running-appropriate: “If I tuck my hips in like Pre, I can run as fast as Pre.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are worth millions: “What if the next special-edition Oreo were s’more-flavored? Hell, yes.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are freaking existential: “Expecting the unexpected is impossible. It can’t be unexpected if you’re expecting it.”

Having thoughts is one thing, but controlling them is another. “It’s common for thoughts to bounce around,” says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist and mental-training consultant for U.S. Olympic teams and USA Triathlon. “You go from ‘What am I doing out here?’ to ‘Hey, I’m working hard, I’m reaching my goals, I’m doing this!’” Taylor says that the key to keeping your mind on your run is to successfully manage what’s going on in there. Just as with running, this takes training. “You have to learn to master positive thinking,” Taylor explains. “That’s where it gets hard. It’s a skill you have to work at.”

When you do master your mind, you also maximize your fitness level. “You may have the physical ability to run a certain pace or distance, but if you aren’t in the right state of mind, then, mentally, you won’t be able to do it,” says Taylor.

Once you home in and focus, there’s a reason why that half-hour jaunt seems to produce cranial gems: It does. A study conducted by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia shows that exercise promotes memory function and information processing by speeding cell growth in the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain. A running-induced increased heart rate pumps extra oxygen into your noggin’s lobes, also producing a drop in stress hormones. All of which means that that legendary, clear-headed runner’s high is the real thing. 

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Active Cities: Austin

Austin’s location in the Hill Country has turned it into the outdoor sports capital of Texas.

Run

Town Lake: The city’s signature running loop—you could argue that it’s the best run in Texas—parallels the shoreline of downtown’s Town Lake. The route takes you on a shaded and crushed-gravel track on the south side (the north side is mostly paved concrete). Multiple bridge crossings allow runners to plan 5k, 10k, or 10-mile jaunts.

Swim

Barton Springs: This spring-fed, three-acre pool is an Austin institution and a welcome escape from the summer heat. For lap swimmers, head to the lanes on the other side of the Colorado River at Deep Eddy Pool, a bracing freshwater-spring swimming hole that’s also Texas’s oldest pool.

Float

Texas Rowing Center: Toward the west end of Lady Bird Lake, close to downtown, the Texas Rowing Center offers kayaks, SUPs, and canoes to rent. The boats are a great way to explore the tree-shaded shoreline. Experienced rowers can rent a scull and get in a workout on the same water used by the University of Texas crew team.

Explore

Barton Creek Greenbelt: Park at Barton Springs and tackle this seven-mile network of mountain biking and hiking trails. Stick to the main trail for an easy ride through the hills southwest of downtown. You’ll find highly technical trails with big drops just off the main trail. Mellow Johnny’s bike shop can provide details and full-suspension mountain-bike rentals for $50 per day.

Fuel Up

Whole Foods: The grocery chain’s flagship store, just west of downtown, has top-notch service and a dazzling array of food choices (it’s one of the biggest Whole Foods locations in the country). Employees will even deliver to your hotel for free. 

Gear Up

Texas Running Company: Located on the north side of Town Lake, just three blocks from the famed Lake Trail loop on N. Lamar, this massive shrine to all things running dominates the local running scene. Tuesday and Thursday night group runs attract runners of all abilities.  

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