Monday, June 8, 2015

Back TO the S(u)P(e)R Angels

The amazing SPR Angels post tempo run.
Last week I made a trip back to TO to visit friends and enjoy some downtime in one of my favourite cities. I had a wonderful time filled with food, drinks, friends and – of course – running. The highlight was definitely working out with my old training group, the SPR Angels, for the first time in years.

Now if this visit was 6 weeks earlier I am fairly certain that the highlight would have nothing to do with running. It probably would have centered around eating and drinking and then drinking some more. And if I had attempted to do a workout with these fast ladies I would have been left in the dust gasping for air. But with a month of iron in me and renewed energy, I was motivated to give it a shot.
Excellent martini consumption came a close second to great running.

Brunching at French restaurants is my third favourite passtime.
I met them for a workout at 7am Thursday morning, just as I used to every week 4 years earlier. It was one of Nicole’s ‘surprise’ workouts that she likes to throw in now and again to keep things sexy and unpredictable. The night before she promised me it was going to be easy, which I knew was a complete lie, but I decided to show up regardless. After fumbling my way through drills (if I have learnt one thing about anemia, is that it is not the cause of general clumsiness and lack of coordination. Dammit!), Nicole scanned our faces with contemplative, beatty eyes. I am sure she still didn’t know what workout she was going to give us. After a minute, she exclaimed: 1k slingshot, 1k smooth, 2x500m, 2k! Let’s go!

The 1k ‘slingshot’ consists of everyone running single file and whoever is at the back sprinting up to the front, followed by the next person at the back, and so on, such that you are only running fast for a few hundred meters of the entire repeat. I was happy I found it fairly easy to get to the front of the pack, until everyone pointed out that for every 3 steps they had to take I took one. Point taken! Next came the 1k ‘smooth’. Nicole told me to stick with Clair because she was a good pacer who was planning to run 3:45. I don’t remember the last time I ran 3:45. We set out and I just followed Clair’s lead. It didn’t feel too bad, but I can’t say it felt easy. We crossed the line and I was surprised to see a 3:36 on my watch. Actually decently close to times I would run on that loop in workouts many years earlier! I went on to complete the workout at 3:25-30 pace for the 500s and the 2k in 7:32. Nothing for the record books, but by far the best workout I’ve had in years.

I recovered surprisingly well after Thursday’s workout so decided to join them on their tempo run on Saturday morning. Nicole was adamant that we not go faster than 4:00/km and for no longer than 5k. So of course we did 6.5k in 25:48 (3:58/km average). Ooops! Once again I was surprised by the pace given that we were chatting away most of the time. Could this be iron-clad evidence that my health is ironing itself out?!

This workout rounded out a solid week of training: 75 miles, two workouts, and 3 strength training sessions. Not only was the mileage solid but it felt fantastic to run on Canadian soil, where trails are actually made of soil and people say 'Hello!' and 'Good morning!' instead of yelling at you for what seems like the simple act of running down a street. In Ottawa they even go a step further, WAVING at you (with their whole hand and not just their middle fingers!). Oh Canada how I miss thee! Despite this, I am looking forward to joining a group in NYC, though nothing will replace the SuPeR ladies, who are nothing but what their name suggests.

Beautiful TO.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Now that I’ve got your attention, no, I did not just complete an ironman. I have, however, become an ironwoman of sorts.

Let’s rewind to 2011 when I was living in Toronto, training with the SPR Angels team, and running PBs. I was running between 100-130 miles per week and I felt invincible. Unfortunately I got injured in late 2011 and between that, finishing school and moving to New York, running took the backseat for a few years. When I got settled in NYC, however, I felt ready to get back into the running scene. I started running consistently but even after months of training, couldn’t hit paces in intervals that I used to run in tempo runs. My first 10-miler I ran in 1:09, 9 minutes off my PB and a time I would have run in a long run a few years ago. I remember wondering if there was something wrong with me, but as someone who hates making excuses, I took ownership of my lackluster performances. I attributed them to a lack of training and discipline as well as taking two years off racing. Realistically, these factors probably did play into my performance, but looking back there was definitely something else that wasn’t right. It wasn’t just the times I ran, it was how I felt running them – flat, fatigued and like I was sprinting all out trying to hit a 7-minute mile.

That was 2013. Fast forward one year when I decide to run the Chicago marathon.  After making the commitment I figured I needed to start doing something other than easy runs, so I decided to hit the track once a week. I will never forget my first track workout. It felt like death. I couldn’t even hit 4:10 for a 1k repeat. To give you some perspective, 4:00/km used to be my marathon pace. My legs burned through the entire session. I felt demoralized, but again, figured it must be due to my lack of speed work over the last few years. Despite my disappointment, I was happy to be running consistently again and enjoyed the challenge of workouts, so onward I went.

My first track workout in 3 years. Happy to be back at it despite burning legs...and skin.

My training for Chicago did get easier and I did improve, but not by much. On race day I ran 3:23 – I wasn’t happy with the time but I wasn’t upset about it either. I had become used to the new slow Jane and just figured with my focus shifted to my career I would never be a fast runner again. And to be honest, I was fine with it. I love running no matter how fast or slow I am and just being able to get out there and train made me happy.

Perhaps not quite as enthusiastic about my finish?

I decided to play around and run some 5ks after the marathon to see if I could work on my speed. I ran 20:40 (3 minutes off my PB) three or four times in a row in late 2014. Again, the burning and fatigue in my legs set in every time I tried to do an interval workout or run a race. ‘I just need to train more,’ I thought to myself.

After a cold and depressing winter in NYC, I began to feel fatigued not just running but in my day-to-day life. Everything felt like a huge effort, including waking up in the morning. I started to complain, but everyone told me that I was just working too hard. They may have been right – a typical day would begin with me slogging through a 10 mile run at 7:30 in the morning, going to work around 10am and never leaving before 10pm. Sometimes I would go to the gym for a weight session at 10pm, and usually would not eat my evening meal until after 11pm. Day in and day out, yes, I got tired. Justifiable, right?
Well, turns out it wasn’t just my lifestyle. Or we could play chicken and the egg and say my lifestyle was affecting my health in more extensive ways. I finally went to the doctor about a month ago and got a full workup. My blood tests showed that I am severely anemic, with an iron level of 5. 5! I was shocked. I have never been iron deficient. Even when running high mileage my iron was always around 50, so I figured I wasn’t prone to anemia. I am not a vegetarian, I love steak, and eat lots of leafy greens. So how did this happen?

Looking back, I assume this was a gradual process. After getting injured and taking a break from running, my diet definitely suffered. My diet is always healthier and more plentiful when I am training hard, which makes sense, but it doesn’t mean you should skimp on nutrients when you aren’t running. In retrospect I appreciate that this was kind of a warped mindset. Nevertheless, I definitely didn’t take care of myself during this period. I am sure my iron levels fell, and when I got back into training while working long days I figure it just got worse and worse until it affected every aspect of my life.

I have been on iron supplements for 3.5 weeks. I can not remember the last time I have ever felt so good. I started to notice the difference about two weeks ago. I remember waking up before my alarm went off one morning, not feeling tired, and heading out for my run. It was the first time I was out the door at 6:30am by my own accord since my days training with the Angels in Toronto. I ran my usual 9 mile loop 2 minutes faster than I ever have before. What is more, every single run since then has been better than the one before. I have a bounce in my step and a smoothness to my stride I haven’t felt in ages. I have started to do tempo runs and fartleks and they feel effortless. What is more, my mood is better and according to my mother (who is always right!), I have more color in my face.

I'm white. But not THAT white!

I can’t express in words how happy I am to be back feeling like my old self. I am lucky that the problem is such a medicinal magic bullet that is easy to correct. That being said, it is a reminder to also make sure I take better care of myself so that I am healthy and productive over the long term. A lesson to be learned for all athletes when their performance is unusually hampered for long periods of time. Once my iron is back up to normal, I have decided to join the Central Park Track Club and see what speed I may have left in me, if for anything else, old times sake J.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pushing the Pace for Pancreatic Cancer

A few months ago I decided to run the New York half-marathon for a charity called Project Purple. Project Purple raises money for pancreatic cancer to help patients and their families that are affected by the disease and for research dedicated toward finding a cure. Unfortunately patient aid is almost uniformly palliative, as pancreatic cancer kills most affected within six months of diagnosis. Given that I am a researcher in pancreatic cancer, I know very well what a terrible disease it is and how desperately we need to make significant advances in order to develop better treatments. However, I can also understand why it has been so difficult to make progress, as it is an extremely complex disease with a distinct biology from other cancers. That being said, it is not an impossible one to tackle, and the more we understand it mechanistically the better we will be able to develop efficient therapeutics. This is why I moved to New York. One of the world’s biggest experts in pancreatic cancer has her lab at NYU and I was lucky enough to become a part of it. I am very motivated to contribute to the development of a better understanding of the disease, but also to do what I can outside of the lab to help raise awareness and funding for pancreatic cancer. Project Purple caught my eye because they are unique in that they do all of their fundraising through running events.

At first I was just ecstatic to be able to raise some money for them while training for the New York half-marathon. However, with my background in pancreatic research and in running, I began talking to the chairman about helping out in more ways. They have recently decided to welcome me as part of their team as the official run coach and consultant for the various races they participate in. I feel so lucky to be able to help new and seasoned runners achieve their goals while running for such a great cause. What is more is that most runners that come through Project Purple have been personally affected by pancreatic cancer and have incredible stories to share that will motivate me in my daily research.

With that, I am proud to say that I will now be running for Project Purple and Saucony. I am extremely thankful to Dino Verrelli and the rest of the PP team for being so welcoming and supportive of a little Canadian runner making the big move to New York.

If any of you readers out there would like to contribute to a great cause, here is the link to my Shoeless Coolis fundraising page.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

(Re)-setting the Bar-Speedy

Team Bar-Speedy

Today I ran the New York City Hot Chocolate 10 mile Run in Central Park. For most, it was their first race of 2014. For me, it was my first race since 2011. Fittingly, my last race was also a 10-miler. Unfortunately the list of similarities ends there, as everything besides the total distance travelled stand in stark contrast to each other (and even that is arguable!). In 2011 I ran a disappointing 1:00:59, missing my goal time by several minutes. Today I ran 1:09:25. And guess what, this was also very disappointing! I am sure everyone cannot figure out for the life of them why this is the case so I will continue on with a riveting race recap!

Let’s backtrack. What happened between 2011 and 2014? Well a lot happened. And I’m not just talking major injury that ended up with me taking 1 year off, followed by 8 months of sporadic bursts of motivation to get back in the running scene, followed by 4 months of flat-out laziness in which I did no exercise at all for no reason really (…except waitressing, that counts right?). I also finished my PhD (fun!), got divorced (really fun!), moved back home with my parents in Vancouver and worked as a waitress (really really fun!), then moved to New York to pursue a postdoc in cancer research (I think this wins the fun award :). Suffice to say, the last couple years was a period of transition in many ways and I actually enjoyed putting running on the backburner. It doesn’t mean, however, that I ever lost my love of running and my desire to do well at it. I knew it would happen at some point.

It will happen at some point. Right?

I’ve been running consistently for the past 6 months, albeit the LSD approach with no speed added in until about 4 weeks ago (and lab peeps, NO that does not mean running while on LSD!). Things have been progressing, and most of all I’m really enjoying getting back into the running groove. Sore muscles, early bedtimes, a low tolerance and an even bigger sweet-tooth have never been so enjoyable. Of course, having joined a new lab with new non-runners to convert, what was my first order of business? You guessed it: start a Bar-Sagi lab run club: The Bar-Speedies! It would be an undoubted success! I have to admit my confidence was particularly strengthened by a certain Ethiopian graduate student whose lab bench is beside mine. People might think I am being racist but I am most certainly am not. OK maybe I am. I think the only question I asked him in my interview was if he ran. Or maybe it was him who first emphasized to me that ‘NO, BEFORE YOU ASK, I have NEVER RUN, do NOT WANT TO RUN and NEVER WILL RUN.’ Of course I am not one to be dissuaded easily and one of my 5-year postdoc objectives includes getting Eyoel to the podium of the NYC marathon. Not only would it be incredible to track the progression of a sedentary Ethiopian deciding to pick up running in their mid-twenties, it could be my first New York Times Bestseller: How to make an Olympian in 5 years. As usual, tangents always get me...

Fast forward several months, and I’ve got three lab members committed to run a race in January. Unfortunately that doesn’t include Eyoel, but nothing worthwhile comes easy right? At least I persuaded him to partake in the post-race festivities! Unfortunately after congratulating us on our lung-buster he went to Brooklyn to smoke Hookah in a lung-busting session of his own. One step at a time, one step at a time…

Going into this race I had a very simple game plan: finish! And maybe try and push the pace a little. This was a major testing grounds operation here. Fortunately the New York City Runs races are pretty low key and not nearly as serious (or organized) as the New York Road Runners races. I headed to the front of the crowd in my usual way and stopped when I overhead a woman ahead of me say ‘I am running 6-minute miles. If I blow up then I blow up, but I am running 6-minuters.’ OK! I said to myself. ‘Don’t run with her!’ Then I looked to my right and saw a woman decked out in fluorescent green from top to bottom and thought she must also be pretty fast. Either that, or be really into the fluorescent green. I wasn’t sure. My deeply perceptive thoughts were interrupted by the voice of what appeared to be the race director who was approaching us: “So you all must be the FAST people!’ We all looked to the person next to us. ‘Are you waiting for the middle-of-the-pack runners to approach the mat or are you guys actually going to go for this?!’ We all shuffled forward as he continued with his ramble ‘So we have lead bikes today, hurray! The woman’s lead cyclist is not wearing a helmet, so don’t run too fast, OK? You wouldn’t want him to get into an accident, now would you.’ He then stepped onto a small stool with his loudspeaker in order to address the crowd, promptly slamming it into a race post, which toppled over and onto one of the front-runners. ‘Woops, sorry about that!’ He chuckled. ‘When was the last time you saw Mary Wittenberg do that?’ Luckily the runner brushed it off (and I mean literally brushed the post off of himself) and (at least pretended to) laughed with the crowd. The director then proceeded to conduct his own personal offbeat countdown, and after hearing a random noise that sounded nothing like a gun, we were off!

I started off at a ‘hard-tempo’ effort and before I knew it a few girls passed me and I was in at least 4th or 5th place. I tried to keep pace with the woman in front of me but after 2 hilly miles I told myself to forget it and just focus on running a steady pace. It didn’t help that Central Park Road wasn’t closed off and there were non-racing runners infiltrating every corner of the street, sending race cones flying all over the place. I weaved around people ahead of me and - being the gentle Canadian I am – excused myself and apologized when I cut people off. That is, until the New Yorker that has clearly been brewing inside of me over the last three months suddenly exploded. It was my second loop of the park and I was doing my usual run-around-the-rec-runner when I heard a voice behind me thunder: “Woman, YOU ARE RUNNING IN THE BIKE LANE! GET OUT!’ I rolled my eyes and moved to the pedestrian lane for about 5 seconds until I was forced outwards once again. ‘YOU ARE DOING IT AGAIN. WOMAN! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT’S CALLED? IT’S CALLED CHEATING!’ I fumed. Before I knew it my right hand lifted up, my fist facing behind me, and my middle finger shot straight up. Silence ensued. I nearly let out a sigh of relief until I realized what I had just done. I had fingered someone in a road race! Heck, I had fingered a hundred New Yorkers who were also running innocently behind me. Who was I becoming and what was this city doing to me?!

I spent the next several miles feeling ashamed and glad that I wasn’t leading the race behind a biker with no helmet on or we might both be in trouble. Or perhaps the lead cyclist would have also yelled at me for creeping into his territory. In this city, you never know. I was just relieved I was running in relative anonymity. But really, who calls someone a cheater for navigating crowds on the OUTSIDE of the course, thereby making the race longer?

Fortunately this episode offered a welcome distraction from the mounting fatigue in my legs and shortness in my breath. Before I knew it I had 3 miles to go and I could see a woman about 50 meters ahead of me. My only goal for the remainder of the race was to try and catch her. Luckily she was slowing down more than I was and I passed her at mile 9. I tried to mask my labored gasps for air by holding my breath for 5 seconds and sprinting by her. I am clearly not at the stage of being able to feign freshness (or sprint), however, as I got two steps ahead of her before I let out a massive groan and slowed down. This made fighting her off for the last mile more work than I would have liked. Fortunately I was ultimately successful, making for a surprising 3rd place overall finish.

While I was pretty demoralized by my time, I was pumped to get an overall award. ‘Money! I need money!’ I exclaimed. I should have known the prize would be more like this (still pretty awesome):

Now this is a female trophy.
It is popular amongst the ladies.

My labmate Jesse ran his longest road race yet in an impressive 1:19 and is well on his way to a fabulous half-ironman debut in the summer. Despina and Ahu ran the 5-miler and did incredibly, dipping under 1hr (58min) in their first race ever! I was very proud of team Bar-Speedy today. And even though my bar of speediness needs to be reset a little lower for the moment, I am positive that after more months of consistent training, some speedwork and more races, the bar will slowly be raised.

Ahu and Despina killing it.

(And if Bar-Speedy is not met, there is always a Bar of some sort ready and waiting.)

Team Bar-Speedy at the Bar.
(Note the jealousy in Eyoel's eyes)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Things are looking, uptone?

‘You are an uptone.’
‘What does that mean.’
‘You are happy, and very chill.’
‘…I would say…that’s pretty accurate.’

Bus trips to NYC are always an adventure. And by adventure I mean unpredictable series of sometimes annoying, often entertaining but always ridiculous events that are only truly appreciated in retrospect. In the moment I spend most of my energy trying to figure out what is actually happening. When I finally do, the next phase is looking for some kind of confirmation that what I am witnessing is in fact truly strange. Unfortunately I hardly ever attain the confirmation stage. Sometimes I wonder if I am the crazy one. How does no one else see what I see?!

I moved to New York 3 months ago and have absorbed enough bus ride shenanigans in silence that I’ve decided I finally have to get it out somewhere. Anywhere. Even if it means reviving my almost year-old-dead blog. (No I did not say dog, I swear I am not the crazy one)
I have done the overnight bus to New York several times. The first time was for my job interview, where I was so caught up in the excitement of potentially moving to NYC and the cheap means of travel that I truly did appreciate it as an adventure. How sweet…and naïve. I remember chuckling fondly at the crazy bag woman who entered the bus with what looked like the entire contents of her household, including a giant ragged duvet, an assortment of pillows, a stack of books and plastic bags filled with food and god knows what else. Not only did she try to store all of these things under, around and above her seat but she then proceeded to lie across two seats of an otherwise full bus, tucked under her duvet so as to shut out anyone who might object to her taking up so much space. And she did not stop at that. Why would she, when her legs weren’t able to stretch out fully?! It makes perfect sense that she would extend her feet across the aisle and onto the seat across. WHERE SOMEONE WAS SITTING. Not only did she insist on blocking the aisle, but let out deep sighs of frustration any time someone prodded her perfect perch so that they could get to their seats. Obviously they should be practicing their hurdling skills and stepping over her, what nerve some people have!

And surprise, I digress. I did not come hear to talk about past bus trips, but to document the one I am currently on. It isn’t even midnight and I have much material to cover as I sit in the front seat (I have learned some things, which include staying as far away from the back as possible) waiting for everyone to get through customs in Buffalo. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on the season, the passengers…but primarily the mood of the border police. Luckily tonight they must have had something else to entertain them they avoided picking out random people to search that are actually completely nonrandom. Like the time I smelled a skunk outside and they decided someone on the bus was carrying massive amounts of marijuana. They approached every young man sporting long hair, wearing baggy clothes or carrying a backpack and pulled them aside to be searched. We sat on the bus waiting for 90 minutes.

I’m sorry I just got distracted by an argument between a woman who took an 85-year-old grandmother’s seat and her daughter. Normal.

Anyway, this trip was particularly painful as it began with a 5 hour flight to Toronto at 8am, a 4 hour layover downtown and THEN the overnight trip to New York. Why, would I plan it this way, you might ask? Don’t ask. Please, just don’t ask. It was actually completely avoidable and totally unnecessary, and the only reason it happened was because my planning skills are apparently nonexistent. OK, moving on! In Vancouver, my mother asked how I would keep warm given that some people might need a duvet and pillows to survive the trip even in the springtime. As luck would have it, I had just received a wonderful floor-length zebra fleece robe, complete with slippers and a hood for Christmas: the perfect outfit to sport for the bus ride! I would be so comfortable! I immediately packed it in my carry-on. ‘Wait!’ I exclaimed as I halted mid-pack. ‘I also have a fleece deadmau5 pink onesie, and the hood has mouse ears!’ How on earth was I decide between the two?! So in they both went.

‘So, what are you going to do for your 4 hours in Toronto before the bus ride?’ My mom asked innocently.

‘Duh! Go to a bar with Mauricio and get drunk so I can pass out on the bus!’

My mom sighed. ‘That sounds nice.’

‘Yeah but it will be hard to carry 2 suitcases, a backpack, a lamp shade that won’t fit anywhere from the bar to the bus station, in a fleece zebra robe and booties completely sloshed. I hope the bus isn’t too full of crazy people.’

My mom stared at me, raising her eyebrows, and let out another deep sigh before leaving the room. Poor mom.

Nevertheless, my plan went perfectly executed. I took the bus from the airport straight to the Delta Chelsea, where I pretended to be staying so I could store my bags for several hours while I attended to mission #1 of the bus trip: drinks. Mauricio and I headed to Pogue’s where we drank several glasses of wine, had some beers and ate some good food. It was fun. I almost convinced him to come on the bus with nothing but the clothes on his back; unfortunately when I told him he should wear my pink Deadmau5 onesie the idea wasn’t so popular anymore. I can’t imagine why.

With mission #1 accomplished, we headed back to the Delta Chelsea to pick up my bags and go to the bus station. With a massive lineup of people there I knew my 8pm bus would not be leaving at 8pm. As I waited patiently in line, it wasn’t long before the people around me decided they had better things to do. Ya don’t say?! I must have given off the impression that my life’s happiness was fulfilled by waiting in line, as people started to ask me if I would watch their bags while they left to do other things. That being said, I really had nowhere to go so I obliged. Before I knew it I was standing alone with 5 suitcases around me. I was becoming the bag lady. I started to debate putting on my onesie and pulling out my flask when one man whose bags I was watching returned with a bottle of water for me. I wasn’t sure whether I should thank him or curse him. Did I look that drunk? Or was it a mere gesture of thanks? I looked at him in search of an answer, but his face was hard to read. ‘I figured water was something you would need for the bus trip, so I bought one for you!’ Oh, how wrong he was! He proceeded to ask what I was doing in NYC and he divulged that he was a psychotherapist that lived in Brooklyn. A few minutes later we boarded the bus and he invited me to sit with him at the front. This should be interesting.

This blog is getting quite long and really I don’t know where it’s going, except to say that in the end I was psychoanalysed by a psychonanalyst who wasn’t psycho-stable himself. I honestly think I am not THAT strange, but in the state I was in, in the outfit I was in, professing that I worked in a medical centre, I am surprised I was diagnosed as an ‘uptone’ and not something else. I guess it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Next up will be a running update I swear! Only because now I actually have one!