You may recall that I have kind of an ambivalent relationship with runs in the 15+ range. Up to that point, I can face the number head-on and not blink. I don't have to lie to myself and perform mental gymnastics in order to trick myself into getting out the door. It's been a long time since I was afraid of running 12 or 14 miles. I'm not sure I've ever gotten over the utter demoralization and dread of running for 2.5+ hours at a stretch.
And, since I want to run more marathons and have them not be completely miserable experiences, I've been trying to deal with that by running long (read: 16 miles or more) every single weekend that I possibly can (knowing there will occasionally be days when it doesn't work out).
No joke, as soon as I woke up Saturday morning, my first thought was, "I have to run twenty miles tomorrow." And immediately my stomach was in knots. (<= THAT is the feeling I am trying to get rid of.) I thought about it during my Saturday morning strength session with AT, while Don & I were running errands that afternoon, & eating dinner that night. I thought about the shin splints that had been kinda-sorta bugging me ever since the move and about my stupid right hip and my recurring stupid right foot pain (not the random metatarsal thing, but the inner arch thing that seems pretty clearly related to my messed up hip). I thought about all the asthma problems I've been having and how I haven't had a fully functioning respiratory system in over a month. I thought about how, up until the last couple of months, I haven't been able to run over 17 miles without injuring myself since 2012.
What I'm saying is, it's basically a miracle I slept at all Saturday night.
Sunday morning, I woke up to pouring rain and howling winds rattling the ancient windows in our house. "No way I'm running in this," I thought to myself, and rolled over & went back to sleep. That happened at least two more times before we finally got up. Thankfully, by then it was warm and sunny without much wind at all.
I had barely climbed out of bed, though, when I realized I had made a grave tactical error.
You guys, every muscle in my entire posterior chain--glutes, hips, hamstrings, the whole kaboodle--was thoroughly trashed. My butt muscles in particular cried out an anguished lamentation as I hoisted myself out of bed.
I hobbled (almost comically, I'm sure) into the kitchen, cursing myself the entire way. The same thing had happened to me twice before the day after my sessions with AT. How could I have let this happen? How had it not occurred to me that scheduling one the day before my first real long run in three weeks was *epically* stupid?
Part of being a distance runner, though (in my opinion) is learning to lie to yourself when necessary. "It's okay, just run for as long as you can," I told myself, while another part of my brain was laughing with grim incredulity at the entire situation.
By 2:20 I'd run out of preparatory tasks with which to stall (body glide, gel-stashing, changing shirts, sunscreening All Teh Parts, hunting down arm band phone case & head phones, setting up Garmin & heart rate monitor, hat selecting, changing shirts again, etc.) & dragged myself out the door.
"If I'm not back by midnight, send a search party," I said to Don.
"Um. Okay. How many miles are you running, again?"
"I don't know. Like, a billion?" For some reason, I've gotten to the point that 18 sounds long but reasonable, while 20 still feels essentially undistinguishable from a billion in every way that matters.
I had no plan except to just start running & try to trick myself into getting as far from home as possible before turning around so that I'd have no choice but to finish the full twenty. And the first few rolled past unremarkably enough. My legs and butt were sore but not quite as painful as I'd been expecting, and for a while I cruised effortlessly along, feeling pretty good, actually, and enjoying the lovely weather. Instead of running right down through the Park along JFK to Ocean Beach, I meandered aimlessly through the side trails in the Park, mainly just trying to mindlessly rack up as many miles as possible before things got hard.
Eventually, though, I started having a harder and harder time breathing, and while I really would have preferred to just keep doing laps in the relatively traffic-light-free haven of Golden Gate Park, I knew that considering I was now six miles from home, the smart thing to do was head back right away and grab my inhaler, then finish the last few miles. Running still felt easy at that point; I just couldn't breathe, which was causing my heart rate to skyrocket. (Plus, I had to run back uphill to get home.)
I'd calculated I'd get back home with a little over twelve miles under my belt, and it was around eleven-ish that running started to feel alarmingly hard. Part of my brain started to panic: "What the hell is THIS?!?!" Under no circumstances except an all-out half marathon should mile eleven feel hard. By the time I was a couple of blocks from home, my legs felt like some horrific combination of lead and Jell-O.
Not good. Decidedly very, very not good.
"You're back!" Don greeted me.
"I'm not done," I sighed.
I had a feeling the sudden and unusual wall I was hitting was some combination of not being to breathe and also quickly burning through what was left of the non-trashed, functional muscle fibers in my glutes and hamstrings. I've actually been doing pretty well not fueling or barely fueling on my long runs, but I figured maybe this was not the worst time ever for a few extra carbs, so I while I waited for my inhaler to kick in, I sucked down a strawberry gel with protein & caffeine & also had a big glass of milk. (I like skim milk for refueling post-run because water + carbs + protein.)
And then, I walked back out the door and tried to pretend this was just a routine week-day eight miler, no big deal, and like I hadn't just run twelve miles on semi-trashed legs.
This was where things got interesting.
I felt refreshed going into the first (13th) mile; suddenly running felt pretty easy again, in spite of the fact that my heart rate had not dropped back down to normal after taking my asthma medicine. Pretty quickly, though, it started to feel like work again; in particular, on a flat stretch I'd be, "Eh, this is okay," and then I'd hit even a moderate uphill & suddenly I had nothing.
Well; not nothing, actually. It hurt more, yes, but, oddly enough, it didn't get any harder. Part of my brain would say, "WOW, this sucks," and another part would say, before any thoughts of slowing or stopping could be entertained, "Yeah, but this is what we're doing right now, so move it along plzthnx."
Mentally I'd broken these last eight miles up into sets of two, because running two miles is easy: "Two miles and you're halfway to the turnaround. Once you hit the turnaround, the worst part is over & all that's left is to get back home." Still, I hit that first two-mile mark & was like, "OMG, I can't even deal with the fact that I'm only halfway to the turnaround." And then the other part of my brain, not even for a second tolerating the slightest hint of loss of morale, "If one thing is certain, it's that 'miles left' has nowhere to go but down."
I think this is a big part of the mental training of endurance athletes, particularly those who compete in 3+ hour events. In any more-challenging-than-usual effort, there's always a point at which you have a choice: You can go to the dark place and focus on how hard this is and how much it sucks and generally feel sorry for yourself, or you can dig your nails into the bare rock and just tell yourself, "This is what's happening right now, do it the best you can, and the better you do it, the sooner it will be over." I have been to the dark place plenty of times, and while digging into the rock and refusing to fall in is hard, eventually the dark place gets old you and you realize that a) going there only makes what you have to do anyway harder, b) you actually can choose not to go there, and c) the more often you dig in and refuse to go there, the easier it gets.
So that's where I was in that second and third mile, going uphill, every muscle in my butt and hamstrings and now my quads pretty much hamburger. One part of my brain goes, "Ugh, this sucks," and the other part goes, "Yep. Deal."
And here's the other thing. In spite of the fact that it was painful and I was suffering, it wasn't getting harder. My very first 15+ marathon training runs back in 2011 got markedly harder towards the end. My pace would slow and I would struggle to hold good form, which would cause more aches and pains, and I even remember my very first twenty-miler and how I ran the last two miles in plodding, quarter-mile stretches because that was all I could do.
Not this time. My body hurt, but I was running well and holding good form just fine. In fact, I was running faster as I went, on trashed legs and one gel and one glass of milk.
With one mile left to go until the turnaround, I had a decision to make. I've been finishing all my long runs with three goal marathon pace miles and two easy cool-down miles, and if I was going to do that this time, that meant that when my watch ticked off mile 15, I would need to speed up to 8:00 miles through mile 18, and then run the last two easy. Initially I'd been thinking that that was kind of unreasonable given that I was starting this run with all my major running muscles fairly well beaten to a pulp, but as I got closer and closer to that point, I kept thinking back to an article by the incomparable Greg McMillan I'd stumbled onto the day before, completely by coincidence:
- "You can have your nutrition dialed in and your legs can be strong, but if your mind isn't ready for the type of fatigue that occurs in the marathon, you won't race well...Most runners are used to the fatigue in a 5K, 10K or half marathon, but the fatigue in the marathon is an entirely different beast. It's not a problem with breathing. It's not a problem with lactic acid buildup. It's simply a problem with fatigue, physical and mental. Unless you insert some workouts in your training that mimic this type of fatigue, you won't be ready for the marathon."
I mean make no mistake, I really really REALLY did not want to run three 8:00 miles at this point. I knew I was doing fine and I would make it with no problem, but I would have been quite content to continue cruising along at my now-9:40ish pace. (Sidenote: These days, that is FAST for me for an easy run!)
But mentally, I kept coming back to a) well, yeah, I know I can probably do it (sigh), and b) if I do it, it will make me tougher. The next time I run a PR-effort marathon, it's going to suck major, hella ASS by mile 22 so I might as well get used to that feeling now.
Mile 15 ticked off and I sped up. I didn't look at my watch, because I felt so tired and my legs were so trashed that I didn't think I could bear the thought of running what I thought was goal marathon effort and seeing I was half a minute or a minute too slow. I figured instead I'd just run each mile at what felt like the right effort level, and if it wasn't quite 8:00 when my watch beeped, well, I could at least say I was putting in the effort.
But no, mile 16 ended up being 8:04, and better yet, did not feel abjectly awful. Painful, yes. Exhausting, yes. But almost without any conscious effort from me, my legs just kept churning along like that was their job and it never would have occurred to them to do anything different.
I finished miles 17 & 18 in much the same way. I would have preferred to slow down, sure, but it was as if once my brain had made the choice that this was what we were doing and this was what was happening, my body went, "Whatever you say, chief." Some of part of me took the discomfort of running that faster pace on abso-effing-lutely trashed muscles and put it in a box and set it over in the corner. It was there; I could see it out of the corner of my eye, but it didn't really concern me all that much. It wasn't my focus. Those last miles were painful, but weirdly, they weren't hard, which is a distinction that I don't think has ever occurred to me before.
By the time I finished the last fast mile & was down to the last two easy ones, I almost didn't want to stop (mostly because running them fast would mean I was done sooner). My form was still good. I wasn't slogging, and I didn't need to slog. Even at what felt like a fairly easy effort, those last miles were still sub-10, and only not faster because I was restraining myself.
It may seem a little strange to count as a win a twenty-miler that got hard at mile 11, but I am counting it that way, for a bunch of reasons:
- The weird metatarsal pain never came back.
- The usual inner arch pain in my right foot was super subdued; it's usually worse than that even after only six or eight miles.
- I didn't bonk, even though this was BY FAR the least amount of fueling I have EVER run 20 miles on (one gel and a glass of milk, vs. like six gels in the past).
- Even when things got painful, I never blew up--I kept good form and actually increased my pace toward the end.
- I ran three GMP miles on absolutely fried legs.
- I wasn't even sore the next day.
- I never once went to the dark place.
I mean, yeah; there's clearly still a long road left to go in terms of being ready to run 26 eight-minute-miles in a row vs. three, even if it was on trashed legs & almost no fuel. But this run gave me a lot of confidence in terms of feeling like I've been doing the right things. I don't feel fast yet, but I do feel stronger, both physically and mentally, than I ever have before while training for a marathon, and I'm not even really training yet.
Hey, look, a semi-normal week with no disasters or crises!
Grand Total: 50 miles
- * 24 easy
* 6 goal marathon pace
* 20 long (including 3 @ GMP)
Plus 3 strength workouts.
Monday: 4 easy / karate
- I kind of thought maybe this run might feel good, given that I hadn't gotten much physical activity in the last week, but no. I felt like garbage the whole time. My body straight up felt like I'd been in a car wreck. I'd been half thinking, "Hey, if things feel good, maybe I'll do five or six." Hahahaha no. Four was plenty.
Tuesday: 10 easy
- I really did not think that this would be a big deal, given that I've been doing plenty of mid-week 8-10 mile runs & even several with GMP miles. But WOW, my body was unhappy. Not even joking that every mile some part of me was like "WHYYYYYYYY are we STILL DOING THIS, god, WHYYYYYYY?????" The right foot that gave me so much trouble last week seemed fine, but lest things get TOO easy and boring, the outside of my left foot was giving me eye-watering levels of pain from about mile 6 on. Also, my never-completely-reliable right thigh/hip started making some awfully concerning grumblings the like of which I haven't felt since 2013 when I ended up on crutches for a month. If I had it to do over, I think I probably would have done six instead of 10. C'est la vie.
Wednesday: a.m. strength work / p.m. karate
Thursday: 2 wu / 6 GMP / 2 cd = 10 total
Friday: 6 easy
- OH MY GOD IT POURED. I mean, not like it poured that time in December, but it was VERY wet and VERY windy and the city was pretty much choked with emergency vehicles clearing fallen tree branches (sometimes from on top of cars).
Sunday: 20 long
I haven't really been running enough or doing hard enough workouts to justify a three-week taper, so most likely I'll try to run in the mid-to-high forties this coming week with, say, an 18-mile long run (give or take), and then taper for two weeks before NVM on Mar. 1. Seems reasonable enough, right?