John Sweeney: runner, coach and human being

There are runners and athletes that we can all admire for their speed, for their grace, for their dedication – those that race with purpose. There are fewer still that we admire as human beings – those that live with purpose. One such person for me is John Sweeney. I met John five years ago at a local race in Scarsdale, NY, The Scarsdale Historical Society’s Fall Foliage 5K. It’s a local race with a small turnout that happens to take place on an afternoon that exemplifies fall here in the Mid Atlantic states. It’s cool, sometimes cold, breezy, sometimes blustery and always smells of the inevitability of the season’s change and provides a brief preview of what the conditions may be like two weeks hence for the upcoming NYC Marathon.

John was an elder gentleman with an infectious smile, quick to come up and introduce himself and help out with anything that needed to be done to make the little race enjoyable for all. Each year after that, I would look forward to the annual race knowing John would be out there running his easy pace with his contagious personality. Two years ago, the race came up short of medals for the age groupers. John was there when we figured this out and came back with a medal of his own to swap in at the last minute. It was his age group medal from the Boston Marathon. I looked at it, and with my jaw hanging open wide, I said, John, you can’t use this, this is from the Boston Marathon. He said, “Oh is it? I have a boxful of medals that are just sitting there, at least this one will go to good use.”

John saw life at its best and at its worst. John was a WWII veteran who served in the Army and fought in three major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. During his service he helped to liberate a concentration camp, earned two bronze stars, the Silver Star for bravery and two Purple Hearts. In his later years, he founded a local softball team and in 1980 he and four others crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Connecticut to Ireland in a 40-foot sailboat. He ran over 30 marathons and collected more medals than an admiral. John was a coach in both sport and in life who touched the lives of many, including mine.

Without ego, without agenda and without attitude, John had plenty of what makes up the best in human beings and runners. In a privileged community like Scarsdale, where your address, who you know, where your child will go to college and how much money you make defines a person’s identity, John was a pure ray of light that pierced through those dense perspectives to illuminate what was truly important, a blue sky filled with hope, fun, opportunity and a true joy for living each day as if it was your last.

John was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors on March 2, 2007. On October 14, 2007 at 2:30pm, the Scarsdale Historical Society will once again hold its Fall Foliage 5K Race. The John Sweeney Trophies will be presented to the first overall 5K Race female and male finishers. We miss you John – See ya at the start!

Yom Kippur for Endurance Athletes or "Holy crap, I have to run how far after fasting for 25 straight hours?"

I should have had a second piece of Kugel at mile 22

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) is the most sacred holiday in the Jewish year and tradition includes fasting from sundown on the first night to sundown of the next day. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to attain individual and collective purification by the practice of forgiveness of the sins of others and by sincere repentance for one’s own sins. However, it’s a little hard to do this if you are thinking about your nutrition strategy for your upcoming long training run, ride or race.

Caloric expenditure during Yom Kippur is usually light as most Jews will be in services most or all of the day. A traditional greeting between Jews before Yom Kippur is to “Have an easy fast.” This has two meanings, one that hopefully you can truly be sincere in the acknowledgment and repentance of your own sins (and that you don’t have so many sins that the dual process of acquittal and cleansing doesn’t wear on you unbearably), and the second being that we hope you don’t crave food too badly or that your blood sugar doesn’t drop so far that you pass out – yes it does happen, especially to older people.

Being a coach, I decided to see how much literature was available on Yom Kippur and how to embrace this holiday when you might happen to be racing or training on the following day. The first source I found was an article from Runner’s World from Jenny Hadfield, a regular contributor to Runner’s World. I figured that she might be a good source of information. Here is what she suggests:

Marathon Training and Yom Kippur

Posted by Sonya: I am training for a fall marathon and observing Yom Kippur this weekend. Do you have any tips for training through the fast? I typically do my long runs on Saturdays – how should I modify my training?

Hi Sonya- Thanks for writing in and asking such a timely question. I know there are many marathoners that are wondering the same thing. Here are a few training tips for those who are observing Yom Kippur this weekend:

  • Because the 25-hour fast begins Friday before sunset and ends Saturday after nightfall, you will need to run your long run Sunday morning.
  • Hydrate regularly this week and top off your fluids Friday morning and afternoon.
  • Eat a normal sized meal Saturday night and avoid over eating as you will STILL be digesting it Sunday morning during the run. [Not good!]
  • Eat a small snack 200-300 calories before you go to bed Saturday night to top off your calories.
  • Eat your normal pre-long run breakfast Sunday morning 2 hours before your long run.
  • Consume your normal sports drink and a gel during the long run Sunday. Bring an extra gel just in case you need a little extra energy to finish the run.
  • You may feel a little fatigued Sunday – some do, some don’t. If you are fatigued, slow your pace and extend your warm up. In most cases, your body just needs a little more time to get in to your long run tempo.
  • Eat a meal with carbohydrates + protein [or drink a recovery drink] within 30 minutes of finishing your long run for optimal recovery.

OK, so the information in there is reasonable and it addresses a few key points such as:

  • pre-hydrate before your fast
  • don’t over-eat during the break-fast (this is the meal immediately following the fast not breakfast the next morning)
  • Eat an additional snack before going to sleep
  • Eat breakfast the next morning and hydrate more

While the information included is helpful, she is completely silent as to the quality or types of food that can be utilized or the behaviors that can help to make the fast even easier. (Not that as a Jew, the goal is to make Yom Kippur an easy experience, but hey we can only take the masochistic thing so far and we are going to go and beat ourselves up the following day, which should count for something.

So, I’ve decided to share a few tips of my own:

Start at Rosh Hashanah (this is the Jewish New Year and ten days preceding Yom Kippur) to get your nutrition in order. I find it more than a coincidence that nutritional addictions take between four and 10 days to overcome from an irritability and blood sugar/insulin standpoint, and the two Jewish holidays are so conveniently spaced to fit this. I also find it coincidental that traditional Rosh Hashanah services end with a service entitled Tashlich, which includes the act of throwing your sins away by taking a slice of bread and throwing pieces into moving water, like a river or stream until all of the bread is gone. Most people use a single slice of bread, but in my case, my neighbor handed me the better part of a whole loaf, so he must have thought that I had a lot of sins to discard. I consider this the low-carb Atkins or South Beach portion of the holiday. Seriously, though, as endurance athletes one of our main objectives is to regulate our blood sugar and insulin response to optimize the use of fuel and avoid both spikes and crashes of energy levels. Tossing out the white bread or for that matter stopping smoking, eliminating simple sugars such as chocolate or sweets, caffeine or other foods that are piggybacked by incessant cravings are things you should be doing anyway and wouldn’t you know that a bunch of old Jews gave you just the perfect opportunity to do it. If you withdraw off of these, your cravings are eliminated and your blood sugar is moderated before you begin your fast, life gets a whole lot easier on Yom Kippur and for a lot longer afterwards. Consider this your pre-fast taper.

The day before your fast, eat protein, hydrate thoroughly and eat small portions throughout the day of lower glycemic foods. Again, our ancestors figured out the perfect diet regime for us and gave us this opportunity to implement it. Choose whole foods and weight toward a combination of complex carbohydrates and proteins. Don’t overeat and make sure that the first thing you place in your mouth is protein to communicate the right messages to your body that you are not looking for a quick energy fix and to cool it with the sudden release of insulin into your blood stream. Keep the size of your meals small so that you neither distend your stomach nor cause a tremendous shunting of blood from your muscles and brain to your digestive tract. Food coma is not what you are looking to achieve. Drink a lot of water (with electrolytes but not sugar) throughout the day. You should be doing all of these things anyway but the preparation for this holiday gives you a great reminder.

Repeat after me: “Don’t Chinese before fasting, don’t eat Chinese before fasting”

Misery loves company. On Yom Kippur keep yourself occupied and with a community that is sharing your experience. You should be going to temple services anyway but being with your fellow masochists will help you stay on course. The services can also help the day to pass by more quickly. For anyone who is Ironman training, hanging out in synagogue can be similar to the bike portion of IM-Florida. It just seems to go on forever and there aren’t a lot of hills to break it up, although you do get to do some calisthenics throughout the day by getting up, sitting down, getting up, sitting down repeatedly. The other skill that those old crafty Jews are teaching us is to accept the conditions around us. The more you fight the hunger, the more prominent it will become. Like most everything else, the condition is temporary, you know you’ll get to eat sooner or later and patience and finding peace in yourself under stress through acknowledgment and acceptance of the situation are great skills to master. Focus on what you are there to do and do it completely. That’s a little Zen Buddhism thrown in for good measure to complete the diversity portion of this program.

Take a walk. If you are Orthodox, you’re doing this already but remember that exercise has a similar effect on your insulin levels as does eating food. Don’t go out and pop off 8×400 sprint intervals but just going for a stroll around the block during the common mid-afternoon break can be extremely helpful. Watch your technique, don’t over-pronate, wear proper shoes, blah, blah, blah.

Ease back into your nutrition. When breaking the fast, stay away from the loafs of bread or cookies or anything else that will be laid out in front of you unless it came out oft h ground and it is still in it’s natural state, like garnished vegetables or fruit. How can the old jewish traditions be so thoughtful and then screw it up so badly at the same time. Try to eat small portions of protein and complex carbohydrates, again, communicating to your body that you aren’t going for the inevitable post-meal food coma.

Here’s a sample break-fast menu from Dr Karen Reznik Dolins at Altheus in Rye, NY:

  • 1 large bagel with a small amount of cream cheese and lox
  • large portion of fruit salad
  • small portion of kugel (good source of carbs and protein but also high in fat)
  • small portion of chicken or fish
  • 2 large glasses of juice and even more water throughout the evening
  • cookies

Rehydrate liberally. Drink plenty of water, electrolyte replacement drinks or juice. Be careful with pounding replacement drinks such as Gatorade because they have so much sugar in them. Go for the more moderate drinks with lower or no sugar added but that do have decent amounts of sodium and potassium.

Eat before you go to sleep and continue to hydrate throughout the night. Similar to what Jenny recommends above, eat another light meal before going to sleep and my favorite is to keep a bottle of water nearby so that you can drink if you happen to wake up during the night.

Hey misery really does love company

On race-day morning fall back into your normal pre-race/pre-long run nutritional routine. Pay attention to any signs that you may still be undernourished and increase your pre-race calories a bit, but don’t go overboard on this. Eat 3-4 hours before your event and then my personal favorite is to sip a bottle of Endurance Formula Gatorade for the final hour and a half before the event to top off your fluids and your electrolyte levels.

During your event, you may find that you may need a few more calories than normal and as with most things, listening to your body is a pretty good thing to do. Oh, and please shower before going to your race. That’s for everyone’s benefit. Have an easy fast and an even better race.

The Interval Long Run – It's not just for sadists

Coach Dave and Josh on River Road

Would you believe this is two miles outside of Manhattan?

In NYC this past weekend, our Race with Purpose marathon team challenged themselves to a 21-mile training run which took them from Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and up the seldom driven Henry Hudson Drive that runs along the Hudson River up to Alpine, NJ. Henry Hudson Drive, is inaccurately referred to as River Road by most locals, which describes the location of the road but certainly doesn’t provide an accurate image of a 8-mile stretch of road that includes a total vertical climb of greater than 4,800 feet including a 1.5 mile 350 vertical foot climb before the turnaround. For those who have recently returned from Ironman Wisconsin, think of it as running 21-miles of the hilly section of the bike course including running Timber Lane two or three times just for fun. Suffice it to say that on this route you are either headed up or you are headed down and perfect technique is required to avoid either straining hip and gluteal muscles on the way up or shins and knees on the way down.

21-Mile River Road Map

21-Mile River Road Elevation Chart

Have you ever seen a course elevation graph give you the finger?

This route has been a favorite of NYC and NJ cyclists because it is one of the few places near to Manhattan that one can work on cycling power and strength with individual hills that can be climbed consistently for 15 minutes or more at maximal effort. Running on this course dominated by cyclists is seen by most as simply crazy. That was reason enough last season to incorporate it into our Race with Purpose training. Last season 500 RwP marathoners headed across the GWB in 85 degrees and 90% humidity and when all came back, the legend of River Road was born.

Aid Station at Top of River Road

A much needed Gatorade break at the top of River Road

With the prior year’s experience in mind, and knowing that this year’s team was comprised mostly of marathon veterans, we took it up a notch by including the final 1.5-mile climb to the Ranger Station, increasing the length of the run to 21 miles and incorporating both acceleration intervals throughout and a fast 3-mile finish. Upon announcing the run on the fall 2008 training schedule, we received a barrage of e-mails, some of which reflected the anxiety, fear, and apprehension of the veterans, the others questioning our sanity or our sadistic intention. Publicly, these same team members puffed out their chests when talking to new team members wearing River Road like a battle scar proving their prowess as accomplished endurance athletes. As a coaching staff we publicly responded to these e-mails with words of encouragement, while privately we smiled knowing how quickly a myth can take on a life of its own. In this case, the more the myth grew, the better the training effect for our athletes. Given that our athletes are in a speed build period of their training, we wanted to build up their confidence in their ability to draw upon different metabolic pathways during a sustained effort as well as develop their ability to accelerate at the end of their run. They had all completed a month of strength work so we knew that the hills themselves would not present much of a problem.

Ironman Nathan makes his way up the Alpine Hill

Nathan, coming off of IMLP and SOS considered this run a nice recovery

There are a few very good reasons why we include this run on our training schedule and quite frankly non of them is influenced by any desire to inflict unnecessary pain on our team members. To preface my comments, the regular readers of this blog know that Race with Purpose is founded on two precepts, the first being that to be truly successful one must be willing to sacrifice for something larger than oneself, the second being that training should be effective and efficient with each workout having a particular purpose to achieve a particular training benefit. When racing long, we subscribe to the Commute, Warm-up and Race philosophy which supports the sparing of glycogen during the early stages so that it can be exhausted optimally over a limited period at the end of a competitive event. As mentioned previously, the plan for this particular 21-mile run included alternating intervals of 15 minutes at Commute Pace with 5 minutes at Warm-up Pace from the start of the run through mile 18. The final three miles were run at Warm-up Pace (slightly below LT) or Race Pace (above LT) depending on what the individual athletes could muster coming back across the George Washington Bridge.

On face, the overall purpose for the 21-mile run was to develop endurance, it’s a long training run after all. Beyond this obvious training effect, there were a number of other benefits to be derived, some of which were physical and far more were mental. As stated to our Race with Purpose team members, these objectives were as follows:

1. Identify your own personal challenges in running long (are they hills, heat, humidity, boredom, core strength, loss of technique, structural deficiencies, pacing, or lack of focus?)

2. Settle into your pacing using perceived exertion and/or heart rate by incorporating intervals of Commute and Warm-up paces in an environment where monitoring actual pace becomes irrelevant

3. Identify what your Commute pace and Warm-up Pace efforts are (and Race pace for those who could really push at the end during the last 3 miles)

4. Gain confidence what it is like to include accelerations during the entire run and still be able to accelerate to the finish at the end

5. Demonstrate the difference between the capabilities of your legs when you maintain the same cadence and range of motion over multiple hours as opposed to mixing it up every now and then and what the effect of that is at the end of a long run – one being legs that are stiff and locked into a limited range of motion, the other being legs that are still responsive and dynamic.

6. Have a positive and successful long run experience on a very challenging course, illustrating that you are capable of running most anything, no matter how daunting it may appear to be.

Those are a lot of objectives to accomplish in a single run. By combining a challenging course and acceleration intervals with just enough myth and anxiety allowed us to do just that. I caution coaches from trying to explain any or all of this before hand as it can create information overload for the OCD runners in the mix and detract from the experiential process of self discovery that each runner needs to go through to come to their own realizations about their abilities.

Jennifer gets some much needed support from her boyfriend Josh

Please be careful, police are watching you two

Everyone completed the run under almost perfect weather conditions with light rain early on and sun breaking through as most began to run back across the George Washington Bridge. Temperatures ranged from the low 50′s to the high 60′s and the humidity was moderate throughout he run. In short, it was nothing like the conditions during the prior year. When you are preparing to have your hand cut off and all that you get is your finger pricked, you have reason to celebrate and that’s exactly what happened here. That’s also why we train the way we do. As these marathoners prepare to run in either the Chicago or NYC Marathons, they will be able to look back on this along with other challenges that they have overcome and treat race day as a 26.2-mile celebration. They still have more to do, but over the past 15 weeks, they have gained the self discipline, the awareness, the confidence, the flexibility and the physiological adaptations to put forth their best race performance, however that is individually defined.Franz and Dawn Successfully Finish Their Run

Coach Michelle just smiles knowing everyone got back safe and sound

IM-Moo Part 1 – Recovery

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Brett dropping weight

A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

That’s all I can say right now. “The Main Event” unfolded a year ago with Brett, Tyler, Stacy and I exchanging e-mails about how we were going to get Brett into Ironman Wisconsin, the efforts of so many to help to do it, the untold wasted hours of work time following and participating in their smack-talk, a preliminary race at Wildflower and countless amazing efforts out there in Madison, WI from true athletes and and untold number of supporters.

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Don’t get me wrong, there were thousands of other competitors out there, a number of which I have known for years and yet only got to meet for the first time, but the story of the day has to be the creation of a true rivalry between Tyler “Jetpack” Darby and Brett “Texafornia” Blankner who both rocked the course out there in Madison.

This day had it all with adversity, psychosis, celebration, penalties, flat tires, little orange cone shaped rabbits, Tour de France driving of the bike course, Kai “Gooooo JetPack” Blankner heckling riders, Cow bells, Tyler and Brett trusting their wives and baby with Coach Adam, Kelley learning that even in Wisconsin a red light means stop, model parenting in a moving vehicle, Stu with a perm, Jamba Juice and Subway, Jumpy not knowing which hill he was on, 22-miles of support running, more cow bells, The new go to “Time Out” for naughty penalized riders, extreme ADD, a run around the Wisconsin football field, another run around the football field, another errr run around the Wisconsin football field, bladder issues, sneaky false timing mats to catch cheaters, using “The Force” over police officers to let us do what we wanted, people with the name Green wearing yellow, bull horns and more cow bells, the only crack park in Madison, contact lenses popping out, 30 TriScoopers in a 4 hour chat, Moonpie and CindyJo pausing their tidal wave of margaritas long enough to run with everyone on State Street, Drew at Ironman Central in Bend Oregon, Tracey “IronWil” Korn finishing what she started, self imposed penalties, bleeding inner thighs, my USC Trojans triathlon team members representing, and an amazing bike effort from Brett and an even more amazing run effort from Tyler to make the finish of this race one for the ages.

I’ll get to all of this in the coming days along with video footage, audio and pictures to make this come alive for all of those who followed this event minute by minute on TriScoop or one of the other blogs.

Ironman Moo 2007

Suffice it to say that Ironman as a spectator sport is a great way to spend 4 days and 20 consecutive hours. I had as much fun driving, cheering and running around on that course as I did as an Ironman competitor (although I so wanted to jump on a bike a few times during the race.) While my constant math calculations probably drove Kelley and Emily crazy, being a coach and a previous competitor and having press credentials out there on the course gave me a few observations that might prove valuable for those thinking about doing IM-Moo in the near future.

If nothing else, it will be one very bizarre race report from someone who didn’t even race.

Stay tuned…