Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taking Stock

It's been a long, hard, slog of a year -- one that started off with four months of physical therapy and a constellation of injuries so bad I could barely run at all. Now here I am on the other side of things, after eleven months of continuously and ever-so-gradually re-building mileage, two weeks away from my first half marathon in over a year, and five weeks away from my first marathon. My last long run is in the bag, and I've officially commenced tapering. Seems like a good time to stop & do some reflecting.

Clarksburg Half Marathon:

Clarksburg logoI finally (FINALLY!) feel confident that, yes, I'm physically capable of running a 1:40 half marathon. It will not be fun or easy and I will probably want to quit and cry slow down around mile ten, but I think I'm there.

On 10/27, I ran a strong six miles at an average 7:30 pace with a heart rate of 184 bpm (I've been averaging around 7:37ish & 188 bpm), and felt as if I could've kept going for a while. This did include a few stops at traffic lights and two water fountain stops, but it also included warm weather, rolling hills, a decent headwind for half the way, and a ten mile run the day before. Clarksburg should be basically flat & fairly cool, and I'll be running on fresh legs.

I had several moments in those early miles (uphill) of looking down at my watch & realizing I was running nearly 10K pace. Disciplining myself to go out a little slower (7:40-42ish) & let the speed come gradually will be key. No matter how good / easy it feels, I want to average no faster than 7:35 / mile for the first 10 miles. The last 5K = anything goes.

After racing lots of 10Ks this summer and running 6-8 miles on my easy days for the last couple of months, six miles has started to feel quite short & over before I know it. The 10-12 milers that were my long runs earlier in the year have now started to feel more like comfy medium-distance runs. Between that & training for a full three weeks after the half, I'm going into a half for the first time without really thinking of it as a "long" race.

I've gotten used to running fast in the left air cast. It really does magically get rid of tendonitis pain while it's on. The right calf strain isn't getting better but also not really getting worse. It does tend to hurt for the first few miles, but then the pain goes away.

Breaking 1:40 will be a close, close thing & will depend on whether or not the stars align. (For the statistics geeks among you, I'm predicting a 95% confidence interval of 4 minutes.) If I eat well, sleep well, all my various body parts behave, the weather is cool, and there's no headwind, I think I'll do it.

(Nothing like calling your shots to get the blood pumping, eh?)

California International Marathon:

CIM logoI'm not totally ready to call this one yet; after all, there are still five weeks to go. But I've learned a lot in the last few months & do have some thoughts.

I think I've finally gotten 7:59 miles into my bones & my body has started to understand what that pace feels like. I'm starting to settle into some 9-10 mile MP runs & trust that, yes, I CAN hold that pace for a long time.

My (almost) Yasso 800s a few weeks ago averaged 3:24 each, and although I only did 8 reps instead of 10, I finished feeling like I could've done several more at that pace or faster.

My 9:00 / mile long runs have been easier than I expected. I feel crappy at the end but my body has always held up, my fueling / hydrating seems to be working, and I'm able to stay positive & optimistic the whole way.

I'm 100% confident at this point that, provided I sleep, fuel, & hydrate well in the days & hours beforehand, the distance itself won't be an issue unless something bad happens injury-wise.

All that said, the long runs (especially the 20 miler on Sunday) are forcing me to face certain facts.

I've had several conversations in the past with new runners about pace charts & calculators (where you look up for your time for a given race distance & then see what times are equivalent at other distances) regarding what those numbers do and don't mean, and how to interpret the results. Ie, just because a 25 minute 5K and a 4 hour marathon line up in the chart does not mean that running a 25 minute 5K makes you capable of a 4 hour marathon. It's just telling you what you could expect to be accomplish, if you work really hard to get into shape for a very different race with very different physical and psychological demands.

When I first entered my best 10K time from this summer into such a calculator & saw that it lined up with a 3:25 marathon, I sort of blanched a little. That's 7:50 per mile. I wasn't expecting anything near that fast and it kind of terrified me a little. So, I figured I'd just give myself a ten-second-per-mile cushion, train for eight minute miles, & see what happened. I've been shooting for right around 8:00 / mile on my MP runs & around 9:00 / mile on my long runs.

For my Sunday long run, I decided to do two loops around Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, plus a little more to get to 20 miles. I figured I would just run at as easy & comfortable a pace as I felt like (as long as I wasn't shuffling or anything) and see how that went.

The first 12 miles or so were great! I took the first slightly uphill mile to warm up a bit (8:54) and floated effortlessly through the next three downhill miles, surprised to see such low numbers for splits (8:34, 8:09, 8:22). The next three miles were back uphill, and though they were obviously slower, I'd still expected them to be a lot slower than they were, given the fact that I was still shooting for "effortless & floaty" & really didn't push very hard up the hills at all (9:00, 9:09, 8:50). The last two flat-to-slightly-downhill miles to complete my first loop of the park were easy as well (8:35, 8:36). At this point, I was elated. If averaging ~8:41 was this easy at the end of a 50+ mile week, including basically a three-mile hill, surely running eight's or thereabouts at CIM was doable.

I started the second loop ready to float down those lovely downhill miles again & anticipating the same kinds of numbers I saw the first time around. Alas, although I was running with the same amount of effort, my splits slowly but surely began creeping up (8:49, 8:59, 8:25, 8:37). About halfway through that stretch was when it stopped feeling effortless. Not terrible; just not effortless.

The second set of uphills really started to test me. I was still making a concerted effort not to push too hard, but it took a lot out of my legs nevertheless. (I was stunned that those splits were as respectable as they were compared to the first lap -- 9:05, 9:07, 9:06). At this point I wanted soooo badly to pick up the pace & just churn out the last few miles. I was afraid that if I did, though, I might end up hitting a wall & unable to make it to twenty, and completing the distance was still my top priority.

The last two miles of the second loop were tough and slower than I wanted (9:08, 8:49). I knew that the two loops would get me to about 18 and I'd have to maybe make another lap and a half or so around the Panhandle to get up to 20. That was more mentally difficult than anything else. At that point, I was using every psychological trick in the book just to keep my legs moving. It wasn't that they wanted to go any slower, but it became very difficult then to imagine forcing them to go much faster (9:16, 8:46). There's no sound in this world as sweet as that last beep from the Garmin on a long run. Sweet baby Jesus.

So here's my takeaway from that --

It's not the speed that's the problem; I honestly do believe that I can maintain an eight-minute-mile for a good, long time. What I think I'm lacking right now is the strength and endurance to keep the cruise control going at that pace for a full marathon. I'm also not convinced that slowing the pace would solve the problem. I kind of think that even if I'd been running 9:30 miles from the very beginning, I would've felt the same way at mile 18, purely because of where my strength & endurance is at.

Part of me also wonders if it's a time thing. Ie, it's not that I started having a tough time at mile 15; it's that I started having a tough time at 2 hours & 10 minutes. If that's the case, a faster pace might actually work to my advantage, because I'll have gotten farther in those easy 2 hours 10 minutes, leaving fewer miles to suffer through once things inevitably get tough.

But I guess the real upshot is that, even after running at an average 8:40ish pace for the first 15 miles, I just could not imagine running five eight-minute miles. I mean yes, these were tougher hills than I'm likely to face at CIM and my legs weren't fresh, but still. I still think I've got the ability to run that pace, but two months hasn't been enough time to develop the sheer endurance (shocking).

So. We'll see what happens in Clarksburg, which will be one additional useful piece of information. We'll see what happens over the next three weeks, which still hold plenty of useable training time & mileage. We'll see what happens once I start cutting back on mileage. But still, I keep coming back to the fact that it's my first freaking marathon, and what I really want more than anything else is to have a good experience and finish strong. Right now, I'm thinking that I have a better chance of meeting that particular goal if I shoot for running with the 3:35 or 3:40 pace group instead of the 3:30 group, then pick it up at the end if I happen to be feeling really good (or, more realistically, like I'm not quite ready to keel over and die yet). Better that than going out overly ambitious & burning myself out halfway.

No matter what, I want to have a strong, happy last 10K, regardless of the pace. As long as I have a happy, strong, safe race, it will have been a good day. :)

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