Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Pre-Marathon Crazies

With four weeks still to go, it does seem a wee bit early for that, doesn't it? (Well, I guess technically less than four at this point. I have been writing this post in 10 minute spurts for several days now, but it was still four when I started on Sunday.)

One of the things I've been talking with people in karate about lately is how our perceptions of how much we know & understand about something change as we learn more. As a blue belt (so say ~2-3 years into karate), I considered myself fairly knowledgeable and experienced in the martial arts. Sure, I was aware that there was a lot that I didn't know, but still felt like I'd learned TONS. A couple of years later as a green belt, I still recognized that I'd learned a lot, but had become significantly more aware of how much there was that I didn't yet know or understand. By the time I was a brown belt, and more knowledgable than my blue belt self by an order of magnitude, I was pretty much floored by the vastness of everything I had left to learn. Now, as a black belt, I feel like I've just barely got the basics out of the way. My current knowledge & skill is a grain of sand on the beach.

It's kind of the same way with running. After my first year or two of training for longer distances & running road races, I felt like I pretty much knew what I was doing training-wise. Several years later, I feel like I only really have a good understanding of the most basic principles, and there are a million more complex, involved pieces that completely mystify me.

That's what I've been thinking about since my long run this past Sunday. When I checked my schedule last week, my Sunday assignment was 16 miles, which made sense to me since the previous long run was my first 20-miler of the cycle. Later in the week, though, I saw that the distance for that run had been increased to 17-18. I don't know why that made me more nervous than 16, but it did. Just a little.

Circumstances going into this run could've been better. I didn't sleep well Saturday night, woke up early Sunday morning & couldn't get back to sleep, then came home after brunch with friends and crashed. I kinda-sorta woke up at 3:45 pm, didn't really want to get up, but started doing the math in my head & knew that if a long run was going to happen, it needed to happen NOW. (Thankfully it's late April & not November -- I *hate* finishing a long run in the dark.)

When I read blogs, I often get the sense that the "normal" thing is to hate speed work & adore long runs. Not me; not even close. In fact if I could magically eliminate one piece from distance training, it would be long runs. (The irony of this is not lost on me.) On Sunday it was worse than usual. Getting dressed, sun screening myself, & digging out gels kind of felt like walking to the gallows. There may or may not have been some quiet weeping. I felt tired & slightly ill as I started out, and even a few miles in, I wasn't convinced things were going to get much better. I could not have been less concerned with pace--my only goal was to maintain my usual easy effort & get the damn thing over with.

So I was kind of surprised to see that my 3rd mile, uphill & into the wind through the Panhandle, was sub-8:30, because I didn't feel like I was running all that fast & at an easy effort I usually do that section in the 8:40s or so. "Eh, I should probably try to rein it in a little," I thought to myself, considering how much farther I had to go; I have never in my life failed to negative split a long run & I was not about to start now.

A mile later, cruising through Golden Gate Park at a slightly easier, more relaxed pace, an 8:02 split popped up on my watch. For a second I was sure I must be reading it wrong. "Casual / easy" for me usually falls into the 8:30-8:50 range, maybe a little faster going downhill or with a tailwind. I still felt kind of sleepy & ill, but certainly not like I was pushing very hard. Nevertheless I knew that this was not an appropriate long run pace in any way, so I tried again to breathe deep and relax and sloooooow it down.

Mile 5: 8:10 ("Whut")

Mile 6: 8:22 ("Ok that's slightly more like it.")

Mile 7: 8:08 ({blink blink})

Mile 8: 8:10 ({face palm})

Mile 9, uphill: 7:59 ("OK SERIOUSLY???)

Don't get me wrong; I'd love to think that low eights are a responsible, sustainable long run pace for me. I would. That would be just awesome. But they aren't. 7:50-8:10 is basically my marathon goal range. My long runs should really *never* be averaging faster than 8:30ish. If I'd been consistently hitting 8:2x's at an easy pace, I would've been thinking, "Wow, this is a ridiculously fast long run!" These felt absurd, though, & had me slightly panicked.

I know there is a school of thought that says significant chunks of long runs should be done at race pace, but with one exception every person I have ever asked about it who works with competitive runners for a living has kind of given me that "Really, this again?" look & been pretty clear that they consider it a rookie mistake. A few miles here & there at race pace during your long run, fine. The last 20-25% on occasion, even--probably okay. But otherwise the consensus seems to be that the purpose of long runs is to get time on your feet & teach your body to fuel itself aerobically for longer and longer periods of time, not work on race pace. That doing all or most of long runs at race pace, although it boosts our confidence to prove to ourselves we can do it, is essentially putting your body through near-race effort every week or so & making it impossible to get the most out of the rest of your training because you just can't recover fast enough.

I wonder about this from time to time when I think back to when I was training for CIM '12. Yes, there are many reasons why I didn't have a stellar race, but I have a hunch that a too-fast 21 miler three weeks beforehand played a role in both my feeling exhausted from the very beginning and also pushing my injured foot from mildly-annoying-but-bearable into potential DNF territory. I mean, seriously -- you would never race a fast marathon, then three weeks later expect to be able to do it again even remotely as well, and that's really not all that far off from what I did.

All that in mind, I kept trying to slow it down to a pace that felt both easy effort-wise and comfortable on my body. I tried and tried and tried, but the 8:30-40ish pace that normally feels both comfortable and nicely efficient felt impossibly slow, like I was taking plodding, mincing little strides. When I didn't think about it & just tried to run at a nice, easy, comfortable pace, the numbers magically gravitated back to that way-too-fast marathon pace zone.

I'll probably slow down on the uphills, I thought. Nope.

I'll probably start to get tired towards the end & slow down a little, I thought later. I did get tired, but it didn't seem to have any noticeable effect on my pace. Usually on an easy run, even if I get going a little faster than normal, I slow down again once I get back into my neighborhood & have to deal with lights, pedestrians, dogs, etc. But even that last mile was faster than I think I've ever run it (with the exception of a couple of ill-advised tempo runs. Don't ever try to do tempo miles in the Mission / Castro / Noe Valley).

Yes, I was tired after. But I'm tired after even a slow long run; that's just how long runs work. In addition to feeling tired, though, I also finished feeling strong, which is rare for me post-long run. I could feel my legs. My feet weren't throbbing. My form felt good. Usually I have jello-legs & just want to go sit in an ice bath with a beer.

Before I discovered regular-people running blogs, I used to read Coach Jenny's blog at Runners World fairly frequently, where I learned a lot of the basic principles of distance training. In response to the recent spike in interest in the Boston Marathon, she wrote a post last week entitled "How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon." There's probably not much on it that would surprise most folks who have been doing this a while, but one quote in particular stuck out for me:

"American 50K record holder Josh Cox said it best when I asked him how he trained to break the 50K world record: 'It takes years of training to race at your peak. The marathon itself takes years and years of training to perform your best. You’re not racing off the last six months of preparation. You’re racing on the foundation that was built over many years of training. It’s the cumulative effect that allows me to continue to perform stronger for longer.' "

I'd never thought about it before, but it makes total sense. My three marathon cycles have started more or less from the same spot fitness-wise and included about the same amount and type of training, but with each successive one I've found myself magically able to run longer, stronger, and faster when it comes to long runs, and feeling less and less like death after. Clearly something cumulative is going on, even without dramatically changing my training, or starting the cycle off in particularly better shape.

Or I was just hopelessly out of touch with my effort level & running way too fast.

Or I've peaked 4 weeks early, ran too fast on Sunday, & it's all down here from here.

Or I've made some kind of insane quantum leap of fitness and/or genetic make-up in the space of a couple of weeks & should obviously shoot for a 7:40 pace on race day.

Orrrrr the night before the marathon I should clearly stay up late, barely sleep, & have a giant brunch right before the race.

Yep. Probably that.

See what I mean about feeling completely clueless?

Obviously I'm hoping it's the first. I know I'm approaching the most critical part of marathon training -- that period where there isn't a ton you can do to get faster, but there is still AMPLE time and opportunity to screw things up by overtraining or getting hurt.

Or go crazy worrying about it.

Always professional.

1 comment:

  1. I love that Josh Cox quote. That is very well said. I had a crazy good long run last year before Eugene and after Eugene my coach told me my marathon PR and/or sub 3:10 was race on that long run day. Awesome. I was not happy. Now all of my longs have sucked so I am hoping that I peak on the right day!