Let’s Talk About Running Surfaces (Revenge of the Penguins 20 Miler Recap)

Happy Monday everyone! It’s my favorite kind of day here in Cville: cool and cloudy. For the first time in months I’m wearing jeans, cardi, and a jacket! This is serious business 🙂 The post I have for you today is kind of long because I had 20 miles of running to mull it over and couldn’t wait until today to write it!

My first 20 miler of the marathon training season has come and gone. The results are in and the run is fresh in my mind so what better time than now to recap the run. This is the second “race” I’ve done with the Marathon Charity Cooperation (the first being the Alexandria Half Marathon when I had pretty bad heat exhaustion) and they do a great job. If you haven’t heard of their mission it’s pretty great: to promote running so as to benefit of underprivileged children and families around the world. Aside from their mission, the MCC puts together well organized races and from my experience provides some really good perks. But more on that a little later on…

Not sure if you saw up above, but I called the 20 miler a “run” as opposed to a “race” because it really was just a glorified training run. Almost everyone I spoke with there was training for a fall marathon (over 20 miles you have some really good conversations with other runners…like the woman who is training to run Chicago and then the Marine Corps marathon and wanted to know all about the Chicago Marathon–my favorite race :-)). The “course” or path, which was the C&O Towpath that starts in Georgetown and goes all the way to Pittsburgh–no joke–was at times only 3 feet wide. I found myself slowly slogging behind others in the first 6 miles just because there was nowhere to go. So the course didn’t lend itself to running a race as it was anyways. But that was just fine because everyone was there just to get the mileage in.

And there were a ton of other training groups out there, training for what I can only guess is the MCM. It was a pretty good training atmosphere especially because that was the FLATTEST running I’ve done in quite some time. The “hills” that others were complaining about are like speed bumps here in the Blue Ridge. I am not overstating this. D.C. is just FLAT for the most part.

But even though the run was flat, it wasn’t the easiest for me. The mileage wasn’t the issue. It was the running surface. Now this isn’t something I’ve discussed much here on the blog but I think it’s high time I do because the surface that you’re running on makes a huge difference, am I right? I’ve said this before, but I am a road runner. Even though asphalt is the hardest–literally it’s the most dense–on the joints, it is one of the most consistent and predictable surfaces to run on aside from a track. It is important for me to run on consistent surfaces because how my foot strikes the ground has major implications for my knee. You know the one with advanced osteoarthritis?

Running surfaces can influence footstrike, gait, and cadence.  Runners should do the bulk of their training on the surface that their race will be on and should probably not throw in a long run on a different surface out of the blue. In short, if you are training for a road race you should train predominantly on roads. Duh, right?

Let’s get down to some basics. When a foot is in motion, either walking or running, it goes through a sequence of motion.

Ideally, when your foot lands on the ground it will roll inwards slightly (pronate) on the big toe side with the arch flattening a little to absorb the shock of the foot-fall. Footstrikes vary widely runner to runner as some runners overpronate and some underpronate (supination). Changing a running surface suddenly can alter a runner’s footstrike, which can have repercussions all the way up the leg. Some runners will feel pain in their hips even though the issue is really with their feet. Cue the music, the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone…and all that jazz.

Aside from influencing a runner’s footstrike, running surfaces can also have important implications for push-off, one of the three major force-producing actions involved with running. A softer surface will necessitate more force for push-off. Imagine running in the sand. Your foot will sink down a bit and you will have to use more energy to push off each leg.

This is Lauren Fleshman’s running gait, which is really sound. You can see the push-off happen at position #1

“So what?” you might ask. “Running on gravel (the C&O towpath is all gravel with sections of larger stones and rocks) will only slightly effect the push off, it shouldn’t be a big deal, right?” Well, for a short run it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal. But for a 20 miler? Yea, I could definitely feel it.

There were very short stretches of the path that were paved (and by that I mean a random 4 feet of concrete). When I ran on those short stretches I all of a sudden felt free, fast, loose, good. The only feeling I can liken this to is when you’re at the airport and you walk on a moving walk-way. When you step on and start walking it feels like you are moving really fast even though you are using the same energy to walk as you would on the ground. But when you get off the moving walkway all of a sudden you feel like you are in quicksand. My boyfriend said he didn’t know what I was talking about when I tried to explain this to him, but does anyone out there know what I’m saying? Running on those short stretches of paved path was like getting on a moving walkway–I seemed to be going much faster even though I was using the same energy.  

So it is important to keep your running surfaces somewhat the same for each training run. If you’re training for a trail race, do a majority of your runs on the trails. For a road race, run on the roads. That said, it is important for runners to vary their running surfaces. Slowly incorporating different surfaces can help to strengthen muscles and connective tissues (you know those oh so important ligaments and fascia that are usually the cause of nagging running injuries–ITBS anyone?).  Sprinkling in a short weekly run on trails or grass can help to build muscle and connective tissue strength plus those runs can lessen the impact forces on joints.

But what if you are forced to run a long distance–say, 20 miles–on a surface that you have not been training on at all. What would happen? Well, friends I have the answer to that! By mile 6 it had felt like I had run 10 miles. By mile 10 it felt like 15 miles and, well, I’ll just let you guess how the final 5 miles felt for me. My hips felt pretty tight early on, which is definitely not something that is typical for me. I ran most of the race pretty angry and was afraid that I would do some major damage. Luckily today I don’t feel overly sore, so that is a relief.

So that’s my spiel on running surfaces. I’m not even bringing this up because of my finish time–which by the way I finished in 3:14 (I had said on instagram that it was 3:10, but my Garmin ran out of batteries so I was really guestimating). For a 20 mile training run 3:14 (9:42 pace) is spot on for me. Factor in the different running surface and I’m really happy with it. No Garmin pic today, but there it is folks, in black and white.

I’m actually happy that I forgot to charge my Garmin because I’ve realized that looking at my pace over and over was making me a bit motion sick (seriously!) and I probably would’ve just kept it on the time function anyways. But I’m glad I’m able to post my time because I always try to do that on the blog for all of my races and training runs. I’m obviously not a fast runner but I wanna be real with y’all. IMPORTANT TO NOTE: I read tons of other blogs that don’t post “proof” of any runs but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t happen. Posting my times here just helps me stay accountable to myself and helps me track my runs.

So let’s get to the recap already why don’t we. I picked up my bib and wind jacket (YES WE GOT WIND JACKETS FOR THIS RACE!) from Georgetown Running Co on Saturday afternoon.

Then we checked into our hotel. We decided to stay in a hotel just because I wanted to stay somewhere nice and have a relaxing night the night before so we choose The Helix, which is a funky cool boutique hotel near Logan Circle. It is completely dog friendly so we  brought the little nugget along (I didn’t want to leave her anyways because she just had surgery!). She made herself right at home on our king size bed. Little dog, big bed

I slept pretty well the night before and got 7 hours, which is really good for me the night before a race or run! 6am came before we knew it, though, and it was time to head over to Georgetown. It was a beautiful day: 60 degrees and sunny.

They only had 3 porta potties at the start and the line was super long, but luckily we found a Dean and Deluca bathroom close by and I was able to use a real toilet. #runningluxuries 🙂 By 8am we gathered for the start. Remember this was just an informal “training race”. There was really good convo with other runners and everyone was talking about the marathon(s) they were training for. I’ve never seen so many people so nonchalantly waiting around to run 20 miles. 20 miles is not that far off from 26.2 and usually runners are all in the zone before a marathon. This was really nice.

And then with no pomp or circumstance, but with some jokes from the MCC volunteers, we were off! The bf got a great shot of my heading off down the path. See me in pink? I’m really lucky that the bf comes to almost all of my races. He sadly won’t be at the MCM  because we are going to a wedding the night before (I will be leaving early to drive to D.C….how about THAT for a pre-marathon routine? haha). But he usually makes the races. The good thing about the C&O path is that there are multiple parking lot stops down the path and the race was a out and back. So he drove out and was waiting for me at mile 7.5 (and was there again when I turned around and saw him at mile 12.5). By the time I saw him, I had finally loosened up a bit and my pace had dropped from a 10:30 to 9min. I think I surprised the bf when I saw him the second time because I was running faster. While he was waiting, though, he took some good pics

Here I am in pink coming up the first time at mile 7.5

View of river on other side of canal

The final 7.5 miles weren’t easy but they actually weren’t that tough either. I ran with a few people and had some good conversations. Not to mention, I was able to jam out to my playlist 🙂 By the time I knew it I was at mile 19. I started to feel a bit nauseous around 19.5 but just pushed through til the end. So happy I was done with my first 20miler and it was really fun to do it this time with other runners (I’ve only ever trained alone). MCC also did a great job with the goodies after the race. Hot Papa John’s pizza, naners, bagels and PB, chips, candy, nuts, crackers. Compare that to the OrthoCarolina 10k, which had absolutely nothing. So the post-race food along with the wind jacket awards the MCC an A+ for race management. Now if only that darn course was on a paved path 😉

Quick funny side note. When I got back to the hotel and took off my shoe look what was waiting for me on my LEFT FOOT this time. Same problem as my run earlier in the week, just the other foot. Too weird. 

And I got my favorite meal that I usually get after I run a marathon. An omlette and Belgian waffle. I think my eyes were a bit bigger than my stomach here but it tasted OH SO GOOD!

Whew I should really wrap this post up. The run got me really excited for the MCM, which is in 6 short weeks! 🙂

What is your favorite running surface?

Have you ever had a race on a different surface than what you were used to running on? 

Mileage for the weekend? 

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21 Responses to Let’s Talk About Running Surfaces (Revenge of the Penguins 20 Miler Recap)

  1. John says:

    The towpath looks just like the ones I run on in the UK. Looks fun!

  2. Nice job on the 20 miler! Sounds like it was a lot of fun. I had an easy 12 miler on deck which turned into a little over 13 miles…2nd 20 miler is coming up this weekend and I am looking fwd to it! 🙂 Have a great week girl!

  3. Ooo best post run meal ever! That waffle is making my mouth water. I totally get what you are saying about running in quicksand and then flying on pavement. I love running roads, but I really ilke running gravel tow paths also. My mom lives in Georgetown so I’m very familiar with the canal path. I’ve got to say though, that sometimes I will run a path like that and feel great and other times it will feel like I can’t pick up my feet. I have no idea why it feels different one day versus the other. So nice to get a 20 mile training run in with lots of other folks though!

  4. OK I WANT TO CRY I almost did this race but couldn’t find anyone to do it with, I had a free packet for it. gah, so bummed right now

  5. Great job on the run!! I also know what you’re talking about with running on different surfaces. When I run in the winter and its slicker out I can definitely feel that my body is using muscles that it normally doesn’t use to run. My hips and butt (tmi?) get really tight and I don’t recover as fast as usual. It usually takes me about 2 weeks to adjust to running in winter slush and then I’m okay unless it is super slippery out!

  6. Jorie says:

    What a beautiful race course, Claire! (at least the photos you posted). I was so fascinated reading about the way your foot falls while running. As a really casual runner, I don’t often think about it. But I totally should! Congrats on the 20-miler!

  7. Melissa says:

    Great post Claire! I think the running surface definitely comes into play. The road is a lot harder on the joints which s why I switch it up on the mill and canal towpath to give my joints a break. Because my 50 miler is all road…I have been doing all my back to back long runs on road…hard on the body but I don’t want to shock my body come race day if I’ve only been running on “nicer” surfaces if you wanna call it that. Haha. That’s great the BF comes to your races!…my hubby is the picture taker too, lol. Your post race/run food looks yummy. Glad your knee is feeling pretty good and looks like you’re all ready for 26.2 again! 🙂 congrats on a great run!

  8. julie says:

    First of all, way to go on your run!

    I always run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail here in Greenville. It is mostly paved asphalt but some area have a rubberized track for runners. I HATE running on the rubberized part. It always makes me feel more tired. Thanks to your post I realized it is probably because I have to switch on and off from the paved surface.

    Great post!

  9. Love this! Great tips too… I usually run on the street, but always feel I should prob run on a softer surface because the road is so hard on my feet at times. Once I started running, I started getting what I like to call “runners feet” haha not so cute

    And great job on the 20 miles!!!! That’s awesome 😀

  10. Kayla says:

    I really wish that there would be twenty mile races on the west coast! It doesn’t seem popular.. L(

  11. Pingback: 2012 “Year of the Comeback” Recap | Let's Go on a Living Spree

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