Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Three Cursed Marathons

So, once upon a time, I decided to quit rolling my eyes at full marathons & give it a shot, giving myself full permission to hate everything about both the preparation and the event itself, and never do it again if it turned out to just not be my bag (which I highly suspected it would not). Then and now, I felt like there was too much emphasis in the recreational running community on marathons (particularly running as many/as frequently as possible, regardless of quality) and not enough emphasis on just running better in general. But after twenty years of 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons, I just felt like it was something I should do once so I could speak with some small measure of authority on the subject.

("Oh, you're a distance runner!"
"Neat! How many marathons have you done?"
{Mental face palm.}
I cannot even tell you how many conversations I have had with non-runners that went exactly like this. Cannot. Even. Tell you.)

And thus I came to Marathon #1: Cal International Marathon, in December 2011. Based on my long runs & other workouts, I felt confident I could run a ~8:00 pace comfortably, but since I was completely new to the distance, I wasn't all that attached to a particular finishing time--I just wanted to finish strong, feel good, & be able to say, "Yes, I have run that freakish, outsized, monstrosity of a novelty distance they call a marathon."

Then about 3 weeks before the race, I came down with an upper respiratory infection that made a lot of important activities (running, sleeping, breathing, etc.) incredibly difficult. I spent the week of Thanksgiving in bed at my mom's, sucking on my inhaler every hour or so & basically just trying to keep myself out of the emergency room. A week later I was doing a lot better, but still having asthma problems & using my inhaler quite a bit, and had been able to run maybe twice in the three weeks since I'd gotten sick. I thought very seriously about DNSing but then decided "Hey, maybe I'll be fine! And if not I can always quit."

Well, I did start. And immediately had an asthma attack. And I suck at quitting things. So I wheezed my way through an otherwise perfect race, sucking on my inhaler every two miles and trying not to black out, & finished in 3:47, which under the circumstances I felt was pretty respectable.

And weirdly, instead of walking away from that race as I'd planned going, "Ugh, that sucked, glad I don't ever have to do it again," I left with this nagging unsatisfied feeling. I knew I'd done the best I could under the circumstances, but I also knew I could do so much better if I had a shot at it healthy. Maybe just one more, I found myself thinking. Just to see.

So I spent the first part of the year running shorter races, & then in the summer signed up for round 2.

Marathon #2: Cal International Marathon, December 2012

I actually ran fewer miles in preparation for this race than for CIM 2011 but was finishing all my workouts much stronger and racing WAY faster at shorter distances. I'd had more and longer long runs and was finishing them more strongly and really felt like ~8:00 / mile should be a cake walk. Then 3 weeks before the race on my last long run, I finished completely unable to put any weight on my right foot. I limped home, called my sports medicine doctor & was instructed to ice & rest it & stay completely off of it until there was no pain whatsoever, and maybe I'd be able to run.

It did get better, but very slowly and very-two-steps-forward-one-step-back, so just like the year before, I ended up getting in maybe 2-3 short runs in those last three weeks. Going into race weekend the pain was totally gone; on the other hand, the forecast called for Sacramento to be pummeled by a freaking monsoon on Sunday between the hours of 6am-9am, and Jesus Christ did it ever deliver. For a second year in a row I seriously considered not running (though I wasn't alone this time), but once again decided that "Maybe it'll be fine! And if not I can always quit."

Long story short, the wind, rain, & standing water on the course made it a tough race as it was (we had 20mph headwinds in some places, I think), and by mile 11 I could barely put weight on my right foot again, which made me compensate with other muscles that eventually began shutting down in their turn. This was the closest I've ever come to quitting a race, and there was a LOT of stopping / limping in those last 12 miles. My gun time was ~3:55; I didn't even get a chip time because apparently the section of the starting mat I crossed shorted out thanks to the three or so inches of standing water at the start.

From the Sac bee

I still love this shot of Giraffy's, because it
just captures the entire experience so exquisitely.

Thankfully the pain in my foot turned out to be really bad tendinitis & not a stress fracture, but I was still in an air cast & not allowed to run for a month after.

Obviously, I could not let this be the last marathon I ever ran. So in January 2013, I started all over again.

Marathon #3: Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, May 2013

Why no, not hobbling across the finish with a torn muscle at all, what are you talking about
This cycle was definitely the best marathon training I've ever done, up until I started having problems with my right hip flexor ~4 weeks before the race. Once again, instead of running, I spent that last month desperately trying to fix a health issue & was barely cleared to run before I got on the plane for Ventura.

This was definitely the closest I've come to having the race I felt like I'd trained for. Up until mile 20 I averaged 8:06 / mile (including a 1-2 minute stop to deal with my foot going numb) at a pretty comfortable level of effort. But after that my hip was done, and between that & the heat it was all I could do to walk/jog/hobble my way through the last four miles & try to stay upright. (Later I'd learn that I'd torn ~40% of the tissue in my previously-strained hip flexor.) I finished in 3:36, an 11 minute PR, but still very far from the race I wanted & felt like I'd trained for up until that last month.

Going Forward...

So yeah. I doubt I will ever be a marathon junky, but if I could just get one good one under my belt, one solid race where there are no injuries or illnesses or acts of god to make running 26 miles at the absolute edge of my ability any more difficult than it already is, I think I could get over it for a while & go back to my core competencies. But right now, I'm still after that one.

One thing I know for sure is that I am through with the "Maybe it'll be fine/I can always quit!" mentality. I think it is quite clear by now that in a target race situation where I'm still physically capable of moving forward, I can't trust myself to make the smart decision & walk off the course. I've had enough of "giving it a shot" only to blow my training on a lackluster/disastrous race. Peak marathon fitness is too valuable, too hard-won for that. Yes, I had $300+ in reg fees, hotel, & rental car invested M2B, but in the 10 months since then I've spent over $1000 on doctor visits & physical therapy & another ~$170 on three races I couldn't run, so you do the math.

So that's my new resolution. If circumstances (health, weather, etc.) aren't reasonably close to ideal, marathon = not happening. I am extremely fortunate and thankful to be in a position where I can write off a couple hundred dollars now and then without sweating it (especially since that has definitely not always been the case); given that, it just makes a lot more sense to me to skip a race I paid for than "Give it a shot!" under sketchy circumstances and end up either too injured or burned out to run another one any time soon.

Marathon #4

I don't know how soon I'll have the fitness to run another marathon, but I think August is as soon as it's likely to be, so right now I have my eye on the Santa Rosa Marathon (8/24). It's close, the fee is reasonable, ($125 before April 30), and I've run the half before & so I know it's a well-organized race. In previous the years the course has been two monotonous loops along the gravelly-in-places Santa Rosa Greenway, but this year it's been changed to a single loop around town / local roads, so gravel should be minimal. While I'm not an elevation diva, I can't say I'm exactly *crushed* by the flatness of the course, and the 6 a.m. start means you stand a chance of decent temperatures. (We are talking August in wine country, after all.)

I think I have a good shot at being ready to run Santa Rosa if everything goes perfectly for the next few months--no injuries, no last-minute travel plans, etc. My plan is to continue building up my easy mileage & keep up my strength work & cross-training, ease back while we're in Italy (though I'll probably have to do some running there, just for maintenance), then jump into actual training with Coach Tom (no way I'm doing this alone) in mid-May. That leaves me ~15 weeks, which, if I can get to ~25-30 miles a week by then, is completely respectable in terms of a marathon cycle.

And if I get to May & August just isn't looking reasonable, there is certainly no dearth of sweet fall marathons; Wineglass, Steamtown, and Fox Valley have been on my radar for a while, and there's a handful of less flashy local options as well.


  1. I really hope you get to do Santa Rosa! Marathons are so tricky because even if you are a very talented and well-trained runner, something as stupid as a monsoon (or hurricane or heat wave) or freakish upper respiratory infection can negate 4 months of work + years of base building in a second. Stay healed!

    1. Seriously! I don't know if it's true, but it sure does feel like there are a lot more things that can go wrong with a marathon than with a shorter distance. Keeping my fingers crossed!

  2. I remain amazed that you manage to PR in those sorts of conditions! I think the neat little marathon training plans one sees in books are written for some Platonic ideal combination of runner + life circumstances + event conditions, and really ought to be completely rewritten. Good luck with the recovery process and with whichever marathon you pick.

    1. Thanks! Keeping my fingers crossed....

  3. Santa Rosa sounds great! I was apprehensive until you said there was a 6 am start. That time would be perfect to miss out on the heat. Plus, you can enjoy wine country afterwards. That is a double win to me!

  4. I feel you on people only asking about how many marathons you've done. Before I'd ever done one, I straight up had this conversation: "Oh, you're a running. My cousin's neighbor did a marathon once. How many have you done?" Me: Uh, none. "Oh, well, he did it in 5 hours."


    That's why when I just wanted to dick around and not train for real, I finally decided to just do a marathon so I could do one ;) But, yeah, I always end up just sort of not quite having the race/prep I want. I know I can run a sub-3:10; it just never quite happens!! And, I should let it go, but I can't.

    Anyway, Santa Rosa is supposed to be a good race.

    1. Yeah. The whole marathon obsession thing kind of makes me crazy.

  5. I hope you get to do a marathon in August, and I'd love to read about it. I'm loosely planning on a Marathon next winter (January or February), so I know reading about your training/journey will be useful and inspiration. Good luck. Go for it!

  6. After just having finished marathon #3 on Sunday, I'm completely with you on this:
    "I doubt I will ever be a marathon junky, but if I could just get one good one under my belt, one solid race where there are no injuries or illnesses or acts of god to make running 26 miles at the absolute edge of my ability any more difficult than it already is, I think I could get over it for a while & go back to my core competencies. But right now, I'm still after that one."

    For me, it's a combination of the amount of training that's required for a good race and the actual pain of the event. My boyfriend dreads weekend long runs more than I do at this point, since it means that I'm out the door early and unavailable for a half day. During Oakland, I was thinking that if a marathon were, say, 18 miles instead, I'd be a marathon maniac for sure. But something about 26.2 just really kills my enjoyment of the race. However, like you, I'm drawn to the challenge of it. I know that in peak shape, I should be able to run a 4:10-4:15 marathon, yet I haven't been able to crack 4:32. It's frustrating!

    I think I'd still run marathons "for fun" (if there is such a thing), maybe once a year or every few years. I'll be doing that at Big Sur next month, and if I ever run SF, then that will definitely be for the experience and not time.

    1. I think that may be the camp I'm eventually in--maybe once ever couple of years, maybe sometimes more seriously, maybe sometimes more for the experience. But ugh, just so many things that can go wrong!!

  7. Part of what I've come to dread about the marathon -- races in general, but the marathon specifically -- is that it's SO MUCH riding on one day. I should have felt the same way when I was training for a 70.3, theoretically (especially because there are even fewer of them than marathons; it's not like I could have just found another local 70.3 to jump in if I'd had a shitty day), but I didn't, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's that marathon training for me became all-consuming in a way that triathlon training avoided by virtue of being three sports?

    Anyway. I hope you get your one great marathon! Because then you'll either love it, or you can move on from it, but at least you'll know.

    1. Yes! I feel like to have your best marathon, so many more things have to align than for a shorter rice, and if something does go wrong, you can just be like, "Oh well, I'll do another next month." (I mean you can but it probably won't be your best either...)


  8. OH no, this isn't what I wanted to read. I thought that 3rd time would be the charm - now you tell me it's not necessarily. I've run 2 marathons and both have been interesting. I got lost in an Arts Centre in the middle of the first, trying to find a toilet. The second followed a week where my husband was taken to hospital in an ambulance, I couldn't eat properly for days before the event, I got my period during the race and to cap it all off, I got a migraine aura around 21k. I couldn't see properly for about 5k. I'd like to get through one marathon and be happy with it.

    Good luck with the next 4 months.

    1. Oh no! That sounds terrible. That kind of stuff is extra-frustrating because it's not even like you could have seen it coming. Hopefully that kind of thing won't happen three times in a row??

      I think my advice is mainly not to try to run it when you KNOW it's not going to be your best race. In all of those three races, I definitely could (should?) have chosen not to run but did anyway.

  9. I do think you've had an extraordinarily bad run of marathons for a runner of your caliber. You're therefore due a cracker in the near future. I think Ojai showed what you can do, and you know you could do better if you were healthy.

    The downside of one great marathon is that you know you'll immediately want to do another one :)

    1. Lol, I am a little worried about that! But I think I'll be able to take a break for a little while at least. :)