Compared to What? An Old(ish) Runner Ponders Race Times in South Texas Summer

Here I am on a Saturday, having finished week 8 of “my” Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks, as well as the fourth of five races in seven weeks. Oh, and it’s the most brutal time of summer in a region where summer starts in February and ends in November.

I’m surviving.

The plan is going well; I’ve adapted to five days per week and made my initial mileage bump to 32/week (25% of those being high intensity miles).[1] And my accidental plan for 5k racing as 5k training seems to be working also.

But am I getting faster? The answer to that turns out to be surprisingly complicated.

My first trail run this past July was 6:56/mile, and today I ran 6:46/mile, so that would say yes. But my fastest 5k was a 20:01 in April, which is 6:30/mile, so I’m actually much slower now. But that April race was all paved road, and the trails were much tougher (read, slower). Plus, it was substantially cooler in the “early summer” of April.

All this led me to want to see my times in a graph. So after an hour of data entry, here it is, my 5k race pace since I started running again a bit over two years ago:

Steve's 5k Race Pace_9_2_17

Some observations:

  • You’ll note first that I’ve taken the vertical axis down to 5:45/mile. Have to leave room for miraculous improvement!
  • Those times sure did drop fast when I started running.
  • They sure stopped dropping fast by the onset of fall, last year. In fact, that’s a darn flat line from October 2016 – May 2017. Darn flat indeed.
  • Summers are slower. (Note that N=2 here, so consider significance accordingly.)
  • This summer has been a lot slower, but that’s in part because of my injury and sickness, neither of which was quite gone for my June 2017 race, and the fact that three of my summer races were trail runs. The one road race I’ve done (while healthy) was a respectable 6:36/mile. So actually, this summer is, on average, probably a bit faster than last summer. Maybe?


So here’s what I think is going on. Basically I’ve got three major trends intersecting in this chart, along with some other smaller and more variable inputs:

  1. As I get in better shape my times get better, but that’s a curve that flattens. It was much harder to go from a 6:45/mile pace to a 6:30/mile, than it was to go from 7:45—7:30.
  2. As I get older I’m getting a bit slower. I don’t know the slope of this, but I hope it’s a very shallow line. Very very shallow. But, of course, it slopes up. My gains from training are fighting against my losses from age.
  3. There is a seasonal pattern, with time jumping in summer and dropping in winter. Remember, a South Texas “winter” rarely requires more than a long sleeve shirt. Our marathon is in January. (And it was still too hot this past year!)

Other stuff matters on a smaller scale. I haven’t been tapering for races because I’m using them as part of my training rather than as goals, for example. And then there’s course conditions, start times, and the many variables of food and sleep and so forth. But the three trends above are the big ones.

So, am I faster? Yes, I’m faster than I was a month ago, and faster than I was a year ago, but not as fast as I was six months ago.

Can I get a 19:59 5k before I age out? That’s only a few seconds per mile better than my best, so probably.

Can I reach my super-lofty goal of an 18:59? It’s not looking good. That curve seems to be flattening about 20 seconds/mile too slow. But I’ll give it a go. The plan is harder than any I’ve done, and I’m not getting any younger, so if it’s going to happen, it best happen soon.




[1] I should note that I recognize that five days and/or 30 miles/week is slacking for many people. But isn’t for me. And one thing I’ve (mostly) learned from running is that you can only compare yourself to yourself in the end. I’ll never belong on a course with the elites, and though I may be faster than some weekend joggers, who’s to say they suffer any less? So I’m after a PR, or a few, and that’s it. No apologies.


Why (Many) Republicans Get Defensive When People Attack Nazis

My Facebook feed is loaded with conservatives posting angry memes defending confederate statues and attacking those who marched against the Nazis in Virginia and Massachusetts. This, of course, follows three responses from Trump, one of which was clearly scripted, and the other two of which focused more anger on the protesters than on the Nazis.

In other words, conservatives saw people protesting Nazis, and they became extremely defensive.

This is strange, to say the least. One becomes defensive when attacked. So the question becomes, why did these folks see attacks on Nazis as attacks on them?

Okay, I know what you’re thinking… and I think it’s wrong. Sure, many of those Nazis were clearly Trump-ites, but that doesn’t mean the reverse is true—that many of the Trump-ites are Nazis. That logic doesn’t work. (Consider: all motorcycles are vehicles, but only a small fraction of vehicles are motorcycles.) Plus, I know many of these Facebook folks. I disagree with their politics—deeply, profoundly, in some cases—but they’re not Nazis. They’re wrong, and sometimes horrible, but not Nazis.

So what’s going on?

There are two broad ways we can be driven to become members of a community—and I mean any community, from Yankees fan to Southern Baptist to runner to liberal/conservative/Democratic/Republican. First, we can positively identify with the people and ideas of that community. In other words, we share some positive elements, characteristics, loves, beliefs, understandings of the world, etc. But we can also become members of a community by sharing an opposition to something with other members of that community.

In other words, you can be a Democrat because you think Obama was great or because you support a higher minimum wage or universal health care. But you can also become a Democrat because that community, like you, hates Trump or opposes the Iraq war or something like that. Burke (Kenneth, that is) called this identification by antithesis. A simplified view of this is below:

Political Identity_2_no narrative


The thing is, the modern Republican party no longer stands FOR much of anything; the green side of the picture above is largely empty but for a few items like guns, the military, police. However, the red side is jammed because Republicans are mostly AGAINST things. What things? Immigrants. Government. Taxes. “Urban” people. Welfare. China. Europe.  That list goes on for quite a while. But mostly, they stand against “The Left.” Hating liberals (progressives, Democrats, whatever you want to call them) is far and away the most significant element of modern Republican/conservative identity. If the left is for it, they’re against it. Update daily.

So what happens when a bunch of liberals go out and protest Nazis? Republicans find themselves in a bind. They hate liberals, but liberals hate Nazis, and they sure can’t agree with liberals. The answer, apparently: attack “both sides.”

There’s always more to it. And in this case, some of the obvious answers are obviously correct. Republicans have, since the 60s, become the Southern party, and so have a knee-jerk defense of anything related to the South. They also identify with guns, and it was the Nazis who had the guns. Plus, to be a member of a community is generally to rally to the side of others in the community, even when they do something horrible. Like excusing Nazis.

But in the end, I think many of my conservative Facebook acquaintances would have been happy to condemn Nazis… If only liberals hadn’t done it first.


(By the way, for those still paying attention, this notion of identification by antithesis also means that no, we can’t just get along. Hating the left is what defines much of the right, so the left can’t just adopt moderate stances and win these folks over. The hatred isn’t based on the stances. They hate the left for the same reason that Yankees fans hate the Red Sox, which is to say, for no logical reason at all. It’s just part of being a member of that community.)

Trail Races are Hard(er)

I just wrapped up week 6 on my Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks with a 5k trail race in place of the planned superset. And I have to say, trail races are significantly harder (read, slower) than your regular street 5k. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. Today’s race comes in at 6:53/mile, as per the Garmin.


The plan seems to be going well. This week was the same total miles as last week (32), but had a bump in hard miles (from 18% to 25%). Still, I felt good. The hard runs were hard, but the long slow recovery runs actually did the “recovery” part quite well, and I felt almost as good at the end of my recovery days as I generally do at the end of a rest day. Almost.

So the question is, why was this run 17 seconds/mile slower than my street 5k a couple weeks ago, and a mere 3 seconds/mile faster than the trail run three weeks back?

I have some ideas:

  1. As noted in the title, trail runs are just harder, or at least slower. This course was about 75% winding single-track with switchbacks, tons of roots, some overhanging branches, and a few ups and downs (though not really much of the last). All of these things force you to slow down, and this slowing in turn makes it easier to settle into that slower pace without realizing. Plus, it can be deceptive: all those branches whipping by make it seem like you’re flying along. So maybe I need to compare this run only to my last trail run?
  2. I’m being ridiculously impatient. I was a bit out of shape after the injury/sickness/traveling layoff, and though I feel like I’m back in regular shape, it has only been six weeks. The plan calls for sixteen.
  3. I’m fatigued. The jump in mileage in week five and the jump in intensity this week might just have tired me out. I took a rest day yesterday, before the race, but I’m in the middle of a ramping-up section of the plan, not a taper, so I’m supposed to be fatigued! That’s the whole point of this part of the plan: get fatigued so my body will adapt.
  4. My running isn’t paced correctly. I’ve never been a long-slow runner before, so even though it’s only a couple days per week, I still feel a bit strange about those runs. The old “principle of specificity” says training is most useful when it’s closest to race pace. Obviously this would mean my plan is trash, so I’m not going here just yet (talk to me after week 17). But, I am thinking I might add a couple miles at lactate threshold into the middle of at least one of my long runs.
  5. It’s too hot. This feels like a bad excuse, but it is crazy hot here in the depths of south Texas just now. At 7:30 this morning it was about 80 degrees and 88% humidity. A slight change to those numbers and I’d be swimming. I know this matters, and one reason I started the plan now was so that I’d finish in late October or early November once it had cooled off (into the 60s at least). Still, I resist this explanation. Perhaps stupidly.
  6. I’ve hit a plateau. This may well be the case. Part of the impetus behind creating this plan was to break through that barely-over-20-minutes 5k plateau. But I’m not even back to that level. I’m a plateau down from my plateau.
  7. It was just an off day. They happen. Eat something that sets your stomach off, miss some sleep, forget your lucky socks: who know what causes them, but they happen. But again, that’s one reason I love the 5k—I can race another in a week if I want!

Any of these are perfectly reasonable explanations for a mediocre run. Maybe all of them.

But for the moment none of this is important. All that matters, really, is that I get up tomorrow and head out the door for my scheduled slow six miler.

My Life in Miles

Five weeks in, and I’ve survived the big mileage jump. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all.

The last three weeks of “my” plan were about 25 miles each, with a bit less than 25% of that consisting of “hard” miles (intervals, etc). Week five, though, had a scheduled jump to 32 miles, and I was worried.

I’ve never been a high-mileage runner (I’d rather go fast than long), only breaking the 30-mile mark a couple times since I got back in to the sport two years ago, as you can see from the chart below:

weekly miles

But part of my plan was built on the realization that I just wasn’t covering the miles I needed; fast is great, but long and slow is vital as well. I did try to soften the blow of the (totally rule-breaking) 30% jump in mileage by ensuring pretty much all those new miles were also “easy” miles. It helped. Now to add in some more quality miles.

Maybe before too long I’ll put together another chart of my 5k race times to see how it matches up to the above graph, but for the moment it’s fun just to look back at all those little blue bars and think of the many hours they represent, and more importantly the countless momentary decisions to get up early, to head out the door, and to keep going even when it hurt.

Peggy Noonan Hates Trump… And Women

Or, How the Right Will Turn on Trump

I don’t know exactly when, or even if, conservatives will finally turn on Trump. But I know what it will look like. Indeed, longtime conservative and current Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Peggy Noonan gives us a preview.

In her August 3rd column, she writes of Trump:

He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen.

Strong stuff, but look more closely at how she characterizes him: “whiny,” “weepy and self-pitying,” “sobbing,” “drama queen.” In each case the goal is not merely to show Trump as weak, but to undermine his masculinity. For Noonan, Trump is the worst thing one can be: feminine*.

This runs throughout the article. She describes his tweets as “plaintive, shrill little cries.” And who is “shrill” but the nagging wife of stereotype fame? His attacks on “fake news” are “whimpering” according to Noonan. His speech to the Boy Scouts, she asserts, shows he is driven by his emotions. Then, of course, Noonan slips into the standard conservative lament about how masculinity has changed from the good old days of the “strong silent type” like “Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda,” leaving us with men who are “nervous and chattery.” She doesn’t need to add “like a girl” to that last line for the meaning to be clear.

Sure, she admits Trump may not be smart as he doesn’t understand things like the health care policy he is pushing, but it’s clear she’d happily accept this ignorance if only he’d be the head-breaking brute he pretended to be on the campaign trail. Stupid is fine. Weak is terrible. But female is unforgivable.

Remember, apart from the other issues the right had with Obama, the one that seemed to make Fox News hosts most apoplectic was that he insisted on “talking like a professor” instead of a WWE wrestler. In other words, he was weak, one of those “chattery” modern men who are hardly men at all. And then Democrats had the gall to run an actual female human in the next election!

So when Noonan begins to attack Trump as weak and womanly, what’s really happening is she’s beginning the process of casting him out of the conservative club. “He’s not one of us,” she’s saying. “He never was.” And that’s what they’ll all say eventually.



*at least “feminine” according to her stereotyped view of the term


5k Racing as 5k Training

Thanks to two great 5k race series offers, I’ve somehow ended up registering for five races in seven weeks. And I think it’s just what I need.

There is a lot written about not racing too often, but it seems most of it—almost all of it, really—is about marathons. The 5k is seen as a beginner’s race, which is frankly ridiculous. Do we say 1500 meter runners in the Olympics are lesser athletes than 5000 meter runners? Of course not. So let’s set aside the elitism of distance over speed, and accept that part of being a runner is finding your distance.  If that’s the marathon, more power to you. And if it’s the 5k, that’s great too. (If it’s the 1500, sadly, you’re out of luck because you’ll never find track races for those between school age and Senior Olympics age, but I digress…)

For me—at least right now—the 5k is the perfect distance. It’s fast enough that I get to run fast. It’s long enough that my mediocre foot speed doesn’t kill my results. It’s short enough that I can train without neglecting the other parts of my life (husband, father, academic, time-waster, etc.). And best of all, it’s brief enough that races are fantastic training as they are productive rather than destructive. (Marathon, I’m looking at you!)

As I posted yesterday, Runner’s World suggests that one of the key training mistakes is that runners do their easy runs too hard and their hard runs too easy. So it seems to me that a 5k race—or even five of them in seven weeks—is the perfect way to make sure my hard runs are hard indeed.

Oh, and I just finished the first of those races: a bit over 21 minutes, or a rather disappointing 6:55/mile. Still almost thirty seconds per mile off my spring PR and awfully far from my 19-something goal. There are several factors behind this. It’s really hot here in south Texas just now (80 degrees and 90% humidity at race time). It was winding trail run and not a fast paved course. But most of all, I’m clearly not yet back to race shape.

But I think today helped get me there.

Great Runner’s World Article on Polarized Training

Just a quick note to pass on a great article that explains one of the basic ideas of “my” running plan (a plan largely taken from Running Science, of course):

Split it up (Unevenly): Elite runners typically follow a lopsided polarized plan, in which they devote about 75 percent of their training time to easy running, 10 percent to threshold work, and 15 percent to very hard efforts. Tempo runs are important, but that middle-intensity zone is still the smallest.

As the article notes, most runners tend to run too fast on their slow days, and too slow on their fast days. So, stay polarized.

Check out the whole article here.