Most people post their end-of-year posts at the end of the calendar year, but that doesn’t work for me. Most of the time, my training period wraps around the end of the year, with goal races in the early months of the year. In the last few years, my training season really has finished after the 30 hard miles at Gasparilla. The end of that event marks the completion of all my goal races for the season, the start of my off-season rest period, and the realigning of some goals based on my race performance across the fall and winter.
How did training go this season?
Most years, I have a few goals. I generally aim to set a PR at each distance, and set specific weekly, monthly, and yearly mileage goals. This year, I threw all that out the window. I wanted to stay healthy,and though when the year started I dreamed of running a fast half marathon, I willingly sacrificed that goal when offered the chance to race a fast marathon.
So, in the end, that was my distilled goal for this training season: to lower my marathon PR. Specifically, my goal was to come in under 4:15. My dream, stretch goal was 4:10. That meant a 20-minute improvement from my first attempt at the distance, so I thought it was an ambitious push.
As it turns out, I came in four minutes under my “ambitious” goal, exhausted but feeling like if I’d paced myself better, had more mental toughness, and been more experienced at racing 26.2, I could have come close to breaking four hours. In other words, I not only crushed my very focused goal of improving at the marathon, but came away with new goals.
Above getting to rewrite my new personal best at 26.2, though, I think this season taught me to refocus. I may never again focus on mileage as a goal, at least not in this phase of my life. Right now, my goals are all about speed and enjoyment, and focusing on high mileage gets in the way of that.
What are the goals for the next 12 months?
This question gets tricky because 12 months is a long time, but it would be untrue to say that I haven’t started to plan, along with Fern, some races and goal times, even into the fall and winter.
Little G and I met with Fern earlier today, to thank her again for her constant help, her effective coaching, and her good-humored pushing. While at Gasparilla, we bought her a headband with the phrase “You Can, and You Will,” which so well expresses the way she coaches us. She believed in my 4:06 well before I did, and the times she’s throwing out at me in every other distance seem far fetched, but I’m willing to do the work to see results.
With that in mind, we’re all in agreement that a decent break is in order, and are not planning to run for at least another week. Fern is encouraging us to bike or spin, do some yoga or Pilates, or anything else that keeps us active but off our legs, which have been taxed enough in the last month. Starting in mid-March, we’ll return to training. We’ve already circled a few races on the calendar, and we’re being more ambitious this year: we’re hoping to race a 5k in the summer, a half in the fall, and a marathon in the winter.
Fern also took stock of our on-course race photos from both Tallahassee and Gasparilla to analyze our form, especially the ways it deteriorates as we get tired. This was especially obvious at Gasparilla, where our pictures at the 8k, the last race of the weekend, after 25 hard miles, show us running dead tired. As always, the first thing I noticed about my stride is my horrific heel-strike, but Fern is far more concerned about our upper body carriage and making sure we have no hip rotation, even in the last miles. With that in mind, she is starting us out on a simple strengthening program to work our trapezius, our glutes, our hip flexors, and our ankles. The exercises won’t take long, but they’ll ensure we keep it together during the last miles of a tough race.
As we begin training again, with new goals before us, it’s exciting to begin to think of what might be possible. I’m ready to dream again, and to dream big.
February 23 & 24, 2013
Bib Number: 969
Overall Placement: 142 / 397 (35.8%)
Age Group Placement: 9 / 37 (24.3%)
Gender Placement: 47 / 166 (28.3%)
Chip Time: 4:42:37
This is my third year running all four races in Tampa’s Gasparilla Distance Classic. The Michelob Ultra Challenge involves running the 15k and 5k on Saturday, then returning Sunday to run the half marathon and 8k. I get a little better each year at managing the event, which is so different from just running one race as hard as you can. Running this many races in a short span of time requires a careful management of speed at each race, but also nutrition, sleep, hydration, and activity during down time between races.
Little G and I knew this year would present a unique challenge because we’ve only had three weeks of recovery since running the Tallahassee Marathon. She and I both felt like we really needed the recovery time following that race; we ran those 26 miles so hard, pushing our bodies to their absolute limit, that in the days that followed we found it very difficult to run at all. We knew, therefore, that asking our bodies to race thirty miles in two days, just twenty-one days post-marathon, was a lot. We agreed to run every race kind of easy, and that our goal was simply not to log a DNF. But we each knew we weren’t going to beat our times from last year, especially as it became obvious that the weather was not going to be cool, as it was in Tally, but hot and humid instead.
Arrival and Check-in
We arrived in Tampa on Friday, having driven across the state in a leisurely way. We checked into our hotel and headed to the expo, where we completed packet pick up and checked out all the vendors’ stands. Though for most races Little G makes us ziti so we don’t have to worry about dinner, we had already decided to settle for the hotel’s pasta buffet for this year, and we’re glad we did. The buffet was well-stocked with both pasta and protein sources, and since we weren’t worried about running fast, we didn’t have to be as cautious about our diets. I still stayed away from eating too many veggies, and made sure to eat a healthy serving of pasta. Mostly, we drank generous servings of water. An unidentified class of rodent had chewed through a wire at Tampa’s water processing station earlier in the day, so the entire city was under a boil-water order. The hotel had bottled water everywhere, for which we were more than thankful. Upon returning to our room we laid out our gear, watched a little TV via Netflix, and turned in for the night.
Saturday, 6:45am: the 15k
We only had a two-block walk to gear check and then another two-block walk to the race start, so we didn’t get up super early. (It’s amazing how much less stress you feel when you know you’re not racing for time!) We shared a cup of coffee in the hotel, then walked over to check our bags while we nursed some water. It was warm enough, even before 6, that we didn’t need any throw-away long sleeves, and we were already walking in our tanks and shorts. Checking our gear and getting settled into the chute was easy; this race is always well-organized, though it is getting larger each year. As we stood in the chute, taking a pre-race gel, we discussed race strategy. I dreamed of running nine-minute miles across the weekend; Little G just wanted to finish, though she knew she wasn’t going to be setting any records. We also briefly discussed our nutrition/hydration plan. I vividly remembered Tally, where I had finished dehydrated and in pain, and with that in mind I was planning to take more sodium-replacement Endurolytes than I had during the marathon. I was also conscious that if I took too much water, I’d just be flushing all the minerals out, so though it was a warm day, I was already planning to take water only at every other water station.
We started the 15k together, but got separated quickly. Little G’s strategy for making it through the many miles of the weekend was to listen to her music; I had brought my ipod with me, but I found myself distracted by the many other runners on the course, and I always wanted to leave the option of putting in my music for the next mile, when I was sure I would feel worse. I ran past two women who were running the challenge together, and heard the more experienced runner telling the other, “This is the only one we push on. All the others we take really easy,” and thought, “Honey, if you push too hard on this one, you won’t have any easy for the next three.” But I kept my mouth shut. Each year, I find I don’t know what’s waiting for me as I line up for that last race.
Nine miles felt like a long way to go, and I worried about the half marathon on Sunday. But, I reminded myself, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and the only way to run thirty miles is to run the mile you’re in. I never did catch Little G–in fact, I didn’t see her again until the finish–but I somehow found the energy to hold my nine-minute miles for this race. When we finished we had a little less than an hour to get back in the chute.
My results at the 15k: 1:23:53, or 8:59 pace. Slowest mile was in the dead middle, of course, a 9:22 mile six, but I finished with an 8:33 push. 1291 of 4919 finishers, and top 20% in my age group.
Saturday, 9am: the 5k
It was a huge relief to know, as I returned to the corral, that I only had a little over three miles to run. As Little G said, we never get up for less than four! We both said we were going to run this one incredibly easy–maybe ten-minute miles. We were drenched, not just with sweat but from pouring water over our heads to keep ourselves cool. We’d both stuck with our hydration strategy and were already planning not to take any water on the 5k course–after all, it takes the body more than twenty minutes to absorb any water–but were pushing fluids as we waited for the gun.
Ten-minute miles were not happening, it turns out, as the race got underway; I was running sub-9 as soon as we left the chute, and Little G was on my heels. The knowledge that I only had to go three miles fueled me, and I grabbed water at the aid station to throw over myself. It was incredibly warm and humid. The race has a large field (in fact, some people were still finishing the 15k as we departed), and we were all struggling in the heat of the day. It was so good to finish and know I was done for the day.
I was happy to finish in 27:31, or 8:48 pace, with splits of 8:54, 8:42, and 8:42. My speed was good enough, in the large field, for a top 12% overall and a top 5% finish in both my gender and age group.
Both Little G and I felt a little cranky and headachy as we finished the 5k. We got our bags from gear check and felt better as soon as we got out of our wet shirts and stinky running shoes, exchanging them for dry shirts and flip flops. We made up our protein drinks, then settled in for the post-race massages we’d signed up for before heading up to the hotel for showers. Post-showers, it was time to head to Ybor via the trolley, to get the best Cuban food available from Columbia Restaurant. We decided to bring it back to the hotel, so we got to eat it in our yoga pants and scuzzy t-shirts, and are glad we did. We took it easy the rest of the day, going down for gelatto later in the afternoon and settling into bed again around 9pm.
Sunday, 6am: half marathon
The idea of running a half marathon sounded incredibly intimidating. My legs weren’t sore, exactly, but I knew I’d put twelve fast-ish miles on them the day before, and I also knew that, since starting marathon training under Fern’s tutelage, I hadn’t run on back-to-back days since September. Asking my body to run eighteen miles was going to be a tall order, indeed.
Adding to the challenge, it was very hot again, and felt even more humid. Storms were forecast, and dark clouds were gathering. We thought we were sure to get wet at some point during the 13.1 miles. From the start, my goal was to keep my pace consistent at 9-minute miles. To do that, I knew I had to be happy with getting passed at the start, since some of the pace teams had started behind me and were obviously making up ground, running at a much faster pace. I kept glancing at my Garmin, checking my pace, and telling myself to be content being sifted, as long as my pace was my own. I really didn’t want anyone else setting my pace–not even the 9-minute pacer.
It was brutally hot, though, and I knew I had to swallow some mineral-replacement tablets at least every other mile if I was going to be standing at the end of the race. By mile 7, I had a bigger problem–my quads were on fire. I couldn’t afford paralyzing cramps; I still had this race to finish and a five-miler that didn’t start until 9. I started walking through every aid station. At some, I would take in water and swallow Endurolytes; at others, I would throw the water over my quads, trying to soothe them into functioning. While running, my pace stayed fairly consistent at about 9-minute miles, but it suffered overall. All the same, the lead I had gained on Little G during our early five-mile jaunt onto Davis Island grew; I saw her at the turnaround, but she never caught me, and I would finish the race about three minutes ahead of her.
When all the numbers were in, my chip showed I ran the half in 2:01:20, or a 9:15 overall pace. It’s still good enough for top third overall, top 20% among women and in my age group.
Sunday, 9am: the 8k
Little G and I both finished the half in sad shape. We were toasted in every sense: my quads were sore and tired, and though I hadn’t felt them cramp yet, I had that sense of misfiring in them that I knew precedes the cramping. We were, of course, soaked through like rats, and though we’d taken a gel to keep our energy up during the half, and knew we could probably do with more calories for this last race, neither of us could stomach the idea of eating. But we also had things to celebrate: we were both still sweating profusely, so we knew we were not yet dehydrated. We were also still thinking clearly enough to plan our hydration to every other aid station, so fuzzy-headed thinking, another symptom of bonking, was also not with us yet. We had each seen athletes fall victim to the heat on the course, so we knew we were blessed to still be standing. We considered the possibility of a DNF, but decided we’d rather walk the 8k if we had to than not finish. We changed our shirts and got back in the chute.
We were not the only challengers who were in pain, and we knew we had likely done ourselves in by signing up for the challenge so soon after racing a marathon. But we were determined to finish this last race, even if we didn’t do so particularly well. I reminded Little G that I had been the one in paralyzing pain two years ago, and told her that in my experience, our legs would actually feel better once we started moving. She seemed unconvinced.
The gun went off, and so did we. Right away, my goal became to run the distance. But I knew it was going to be a tough challenge. I was very tired, and my left shin was now joining my quads in calling for a cease-fire. I tried to quiet them by throwing water on them at the aid stations, but I was determined to keep moving. As I walked through one aid station, Little G caught up with me, and said, “I’m right behind you. Keep moving.” We went through the turnaround and I couldn’t believe how long the road ahead seemed; the humidity was so intense it felt like we were running in a sauna. Then, at about mile three, the sun came out, and the temperature rose instantly. I pulled on my shades and kept moving.
I was tempted to walk. I had nothing to prove. Two miles from the finish, I’d still get my medal, even if it took me thirty minutes to finish those last two miles. But, here’s the thing: one of the things I learned in Tally is that I need to develop more mental toughness before I can defeat the 26.2 beast. When exhaustion and dehydration and sheer mental deadness take over, it takes a mind of steel to keep running when you’d rather quit. You see, nothing keeps you from walking–it’s a perfectly acceptable option. Reasonable, even. At Tally, in the last five miles, running often brought me to tears with cramps. But that was not true at Gasparilla. I was tired and hurting and I wanted to quit. But I wasn’t hurt. So I made myself keep running. I told myself that, until my next 26.2, this was the best marathon training I was going to get–the mental training of not quitting under the incredible duress of the sun bearing down on me, the 28 miles I had already run, the agonizing deadness of my legs, and the overwhelming desire to walk.
Make no mistake: I didn’t run fast. But I ran every mile of that 8k. I finished it with a chip time of 49:52, or an average pace of 9:59. Not surprisingly, it was my least competitive finish, and I didn’t crack the top third of the field, though I did make it into the top third in both my gender and age group.
When I was finished, I was again almost helpless with exhaustion, as after the marathon, and so drained that I was immediately close to tears. I was thankful, again, to have shared this with Little G, and to have conquered the distance in spite of all the challenges we’d faced. And thankful, so thankful, to be done.
My training log says I’ve run 70.7 miles this month, and a full 56.7 of those have been racing miles. I unpacked my running shoes on Sunday and have not seen them yet; my running clothes remain folded. There will be no more miles added this month. It has been a good season, and now it’s time for rest.
During our months of training, I drove Little G and Fern, our trainer, crazy with my fears and doubts about the 26.2 distance. I had two previous attempts at the marathon under my belt. In March 2009, I had trained alone, and arrived at the starting line feeling very tired and spent. I was determined to run a conservative race, and though I knew I couldn’t predict how I would do at my first marathon, I really hoped to finish in 4:30 or under. I accomplished my goal by the smallest of margins, getting a 4:30:04 chip time, but it was a miserable experience, as I ran the race in a complete downpour and finished demoralized, wet, and shivering. And yes, there was plenty of walking in those last five miles. Then, in November 2010, I trained with Little G for the Space Coast Marathon, and though I felt stronger and faster than ever, I got injured before I ever made it to the race. I ran the companion half marathon instead, in tears and pain. Since then, I had been too scared of the volume of training required by the marathon, of my own propensity for injury, and of the distance itself, to want to sign up for another attempt.
I know who I am as a runner. I love to run, but when I enter a race, I have no desire to watch scenery, take great pictures, or enjoy conversation with the other athletes–at least not on the race course. When I step up to the line, my competitive juices come out, and I run to race. So running another marathon easy was out of the question. I had an easy marathon under my belt. When I signed up for another, I wanted to race it. Finding Fern and her training methods was perfect, because she honed my speed, which I wanted so badly, and mitigated my risk of injury, which I feared.
I wanted to try the distance again, and we thought Tallahassee was a great place to do it. The course is fast and straight, and Little G and I don’t mind small races with little crowd support. A Florida race meant low travel costs, and we lowered those even further by staying with her mother for race weekend. Better yet, we knew a nearby race would mean having someone available to act as our support crew along the course.
But I also knew, as I signed up for the race, that racing the marathon meant this one would be like my first one, all over again. I knew that I had no experience at the kind of mental toughness and physical pain I’d have to endure. And this time, I wanted to go into it with my eyes wide open. I didn’t want to start the race at an easy pace–I had done that, and learned that, no matter how smart you start, running, after the 20-mile mark, is always an exhausting, terrifying proposition. If I was going to be rendered mindless with exhaustion and pain at 20 miles anyway, at least I wanted to get there as fast as possible.
Throughout training, and even in the days before the race, the fear of the distance threatened to paralyze me. I stood at the start line, shivering, in a small cluster of people, thinking, “What am I doing?” But when we started running all that went out of my head. I knew only running, and running fast. My heart and lungs didn’t struggle with the pace, nor did my legs, though fear swirled about my head as I considered whether I could hold that pace for 26 miles. Still, I ran on, ignoring the first bouts of cramping pain, and was feeling well enough to lead Little G for much of miles 14 through 20. At the 20-mile mark I turned to her and said, “It’s a 10k from here,” and though we were both tired and hurting, we were still moving, as a team.
I was right, in some ways, to fear the distance. Racing the 26.2 was more difficult, more exhausting, more painful than I had imagined, and it started to hurt much earlier than I had expected. It’s why I said with such conviction, to anyone within earshot those first few post-marathon days, “I will never run another.”
But I have learned this: I finished the race. Somehow, my legs, my heart, and my lungs got themselves wrapped around the ridiculous feat of running 26.2 miles, and in spite of every obstacle, I finished well. Though my legs were hard to move for the next three days, and though our first run back six days later was still humbling (our quads, it turns out, are not fully healed), I didn’t die, I met my goals, and I am thankful for the experience–yes, for every mile I spent on that tree-lined, lonely trail.
After a slow and painful run Saturday, Little G and I met Fern again, for our final postrace debriefing. She was smiling ear-to-ear, and a little smug. Yes, we are dreaming together of next season. Little G’s time qualifies her for Boston, and I’m bothered enough by my six minutes over four hours to be dreaming of another attempt at breaking the four-hour barrier. Fern thinks I can do it, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, in a year, I might be able to face the agony again. We’re talking about changes we’ll make to our fueling, hydration, and nutrition, looking forward to tweaking our marathon experience a little at a time.
And our dreams are growing . . . We each have a half marathon best time just under 1:50, and we are realizing we’ve never raced a half as hard as we raced this marathon. What could we be capable of at 13.1 miles, with Fern’s race-specific speed intervals and the resolution to be willing to hurt, even from the first mile? As we look toward the fall, we are hoping to race a half marathon on the way to a spring 26.2. Notice we’re spreading our races out: Little G hopes to run Boston in April, and I’m likely to return to Tally. Frank Shorter said, ”You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” We’re doing our best to follow his advice.
All my running life, I’ve run carefully in the first miles of a race, being cautious not to start too fast. One of many lessons learned from this race is that I have been selling myself short. I am faster than I have dared myself believe, and I can hold on to my speed miles after it has begun to hurt. I am excited about putting this knowledge to use on the race course, at every distance.
I couldn’t wait to come back and tear this race apart, mostly because I wanted to talk about how we trained for it. I’ve been waiting to talk about it since October because I knew we were taking a big risk, and a small part of me thought there was a chance we would crash and burn at the race. Now that the race is behind us, and Little G and I proved with our execution that the training was more than adequate, I feel confident to share how wonderfully complicated and simple our training was.
In October, Little G’s old physical therapist agreed to meet with us to give us some wisdom and insight into our training schedules. As runners, Little G and I knew we’d come to the end of our own wisdom. Over the years, we’d always cobbled together our own training plans, using everything we’d learned from books, magazines, and experience. But we seemed to have hit a plateau in our times, and we longed for more. Neither one of us has money in the budget for a traditional coach, so Fern agreed to meet us and give us some advice.
At that initial meeting, we both brought our training logs for the past two years. She asked about our injury history, our racing patterns, and our cross-training habits. She asked what our preferences were regarding running days and frequency, and then she asked about our goals. The next day, she sent us a training schedule for the next four months that was designed to get us across the line of the Tallahassee marathon in 4:15 or better.
Fern had listened to and honored our many requests, chief among them respecting Sunday as a total Sabbath from training. But she also had some insights for us that would require changing how we trained. Chief among them: Fern’s assertion that in order to get faster, we needed to run, and race, a lot less.
For me, the idea of running almost half the number of miles I was accustomed to, as I trained for the longest distance in road running, was mind-boggling. I was worried about how my body would respond to running only three days a week, instead of four or five. But I knew what I was doing was no longer producing results. I knew that at the end of the last two training seasons, I had been injured, or nearly so. I made the decision to give this year over to Fern’s experiment. I would follow her schedule wholeheartedly, and give it a fair test by running the Tallahassee Marathon. One year. The year of training dangerously.
How was training different this year?
First, like I said, we just ran less than we usually do. While training for a half marathon, I regularly run 40 miles a week, sometimes more. While training for marathons, my highest mileage to date has hit the mid-50s, which is considered pretty low among competitive recreational runners. Under Fern’s plan, our highest mileage week capped at 36. Most weeks we ran about twenty miles.
I also violated my formerly cardinal rule of long runs. I’d been told all my running life that the risk of injury increases dramatically when the mileage of the long run is more than 50% of your total weekly mileage, and that, ideally, it should only be about 30%. But under Fern’s plan, our long runs were regularly half of our weekly mileage, and on our high-mileage weeks, it was more.
However, though we were running less, we were also running much harder, and much more specifically. Fern was sure that to run faster, we’d have to give up the idea of just running easy for many miles, especially as we got older. Now in my upper 30s, I’m in a highly competitive age group, and with Little G fifteen years my senior, it just makes no sense to keep pounding our knees into the pavement.
Fern’s training plan was beautiful in its simplicity. Each week, we dedicated one day to a speed-sharpening session, one day to running easy, and one day to a long run. Our fourth training day was to be spent cross-training.
It was also simple in its monthly structure. In October, we ran hills, strengthening our legs with seemingly endless repetitions of steady-pace runs up our local drawbridge. We increased the repetitions each week until we were ran that bridge twelve times. In November, our focus moved to pure speed, and we ran the fastest, shortest intervals either of us had ever run in training. Under Fern’s tutelage, we learned to run 200 and 100-meter intervals. Each week, we faced a new combination of lung-sucking repeats. In December, we ran tempo runs at 10- and 5k pace, finding that “comfortably uncomfortable” pace and learning to hang out in it. We ran shorter tempo runs in January as we entered our taper period and got ready for the race.
Fern also changed the pace of our long runs. Prior to meeting her, Little G and I had run our long runs at about ten-minute pace. We had lots of time to build up our long runs–Little G and I had wrapped up a 14-miler on the day we met with Fern for the first time–so Fern’s training plan alternated between true long runs and cut-back mid-long runs. But she tasked us with running the midlength runs a lot faster–between 9:15 and 9:30–and the double-digit runs between 9:30 and 9:45.
How did we respond to the training?
It was hard at first to stay in bed on our rest days instead of heading out for a run. Fern had given us freedom to add in another easy 4- or 5-miler if we wanted to, but Little G and I wanted to stay true to the plan, and it wasn’t long before we discovered that between cross-training and the killer speed workouts, we were getting worked pretty hard.
We each had things we loved about the plan and things we hated, and we were honest with Fern about them, as we met fairly regularly for coffee and debriefing, usually after our long runs. She would grin with fascination as she heard about our struggle with a workout and how the speed was kicking in. She knew results would come. I was hesitant, if not downright afraid, about the 26.2 distance. By the time I stood on the start line at Tally, it would be almost four years since I’d run my first, so this was like my first go-around at the distance. Fern listened to my doubts, but she insisted, looking at my times on the workouts, that the 4:15 would come easily.
Fern’s plan was working, and we couldn’t deny that. Under her guidance, our times across the board dropped. We were still carrying on conversations on our training runs, but our slowest long run averaged 9:30–and that was a 23-miler. Even our easy pace dropped, probably as a result of fresh legs. November, usually a heavy racing month for us, came and went, and we skipped all but one race and pushed on.
In the end, the best evidence for how we responded to the training is this: on February 3, intending to run 26.2 miles at 9:44 pace in order to cross the finish line in 4:15 or better, I ran the first 21 miles at 8:51 average pace, until I was stopped dead in my tracks by paralyzing cramps. Even humbled, in pain, and forced to walk for some of the last five miles, I still finished in 4:06, a 9:25 average, and well below our goal time of 4:15.
I considered the possibility that the cramps were a result of poor pacing, that I simply started out too fast, and that’s certainly possible. But most marathoners do their long runs a minute slower than their long run pace, and our 9:20 long run pace certainly supported an 8:50 pace. Considering how I felt during and after the race, I think it far more likely that I was simply dehydrated, something I should have been more prepared for since I know I am a heavy sweater.
Was the cramp-fueled slow down a consequence of the lower-mileage training? After all, we did attempt to run a marathon on training of 100 running miles a month! I don’t think so. Little G, who submitted to the same one-year experiment I did, ran five minutes faster and finished exhausted, but cramp-free. She slowed down herself after mile 22, as most marathoners do, and we think for both of our issues a tweak of our nutrition is what’s needed.
Would you train this way again?
Yes, when I’m ready to train for another 26.2, I’ll be returning to this schedule, or something like it. Standing at the start of a race with fresh legs is a wonderful feeling, and a fast time at a race is more important to me than hitting a certain number of miles for the month. For now, I’d like to choose my races carefully and perform very well at them–I feel like I’ve got another PR or two left in these legs. By the way, I owe that to Fern! At the end of last season, I thought my days of chasing after faster times were probably over, but she’s reawakened my zeal for speed, and I am eager to circle one or two races on the calendar, train wisely, and see if I can’t get those numbers even lower.
February 3, 2013
Bib Number: 97
Overall Placement: 160/308 (52%)
Age Group Placement: 11/22 (50%)
Gender Placement: 47/117 (40%)
Chip Time: 4:06:41
As marathoners face race day, they control their training, the choice of the course they’ll race on, and, of course, their own execution of the race. But runners always know they’ll face some great unknown, unpredictable, and ultimately uncontrollable elements, chief among them weather conditions on race day. In Florida, the weather is always unpredictable, and the marathon in Tally had been run in the mid-70s in 2012. But, this year, a front moved through in the days before the race, and Little G and I woke up to the high 30s as we dressed for the race, and stepped into the starting area dressed in our shorts and high socks, with our top halves dressed very warmly. We each had on the racing singlets we’d trained on in the 70s, along with racing sleeves, a long-sleeve tech top, and a sweatshirt we planned to discard early on. Little G had on gloves; my sleeves covered my hands.
The Tallahassee Marathon and Half is a small race, totaling about a thousand runners, which made it unnecessary for us to arrive more than an hour before gun time. It was nice not to stand around shivering too long, and in the Florida sun, which was rising already since the race started at 7:30, temperatures were rising quickly–I wish I’d noted this more clearly. We shucked our sweatshirts before the gun went off. The first mile was a quirky loop around the FSU campus, and we lost our tech long-sleeve shirts at about the first mile marker. This, too, should have been an indication to me of how quickly I was warming up. The temperatures were still in the 40s, and I was already running in a single layer, after a single mile.
The course was a beautiful out-and-back. We ran a few miles through the city to make it to the flat, paved bike trail, where the scenery was beautiful–a tree-lined, constant view of pine trees and occasional ponds that kept us company through the many miles.
Little G and I are not in the habit of running our races together. Throughout the race, until I asked her to leave me in the last few miles, we regularly played chase-the-bunny. I can’t relate with precision at which mile markers we were together and when I was running alone, but in this race, we ran in close proximity for much of the first 20 miles. This is unusual for us, though we run at similar speed.
Miles 1-5: As I said, we passed the first mile marker hot, and discarded our first layer of long sleeves. Knowing temperatures would be in the 50s for the duration of the race, we thought it likely we’d keep our running sleeves on for the duration of the race, and I groan now at the foolishness of our own arrogance. The crowd is talkative and garrulous, but not Little G and I. We are focused and intense, though I know our pace is fast. I tell her we should slow. She moves on with dogged determination. 8:54, 8:31, 8:42, 8:40, 8:50.
Miles 6-10. The trail feels crowded, and the white-bibbed half marathoners are chatty. Little G and I are getting even warmer, and have decided to shuck our sleeves. We’re hopeful that her daughter, who is acting as our crew-slash-cheerleader, will be able to meet us at mile 7, but we can’t wait to take them off, so we peel them off at 6 and tuck them into our waistbands. I notice my entire backside is numb. I mention this to Little G, worried. She notes that if it’s numb, it won’t hurt. Just past the 10k point we celebrate the half marathon turn around–it means we just lost 70% of the runners, and we can breathe. Our crew and cheerleader meets us at 7 and takes our sleeves as she cheers us uproariously. We are energized and run on. We’re taking a gel and an Endurolyte, our electrolyte-replacement product of choice, every 4 miles. Our personal cheering section has become a volunteer at the water station at mile 10, and we get the most personal service possible. 8:34, 8:26, 8:39, 8:41, 8:46.
Miles 11-15. I know I’m running too fast. I slow for moments and my legs return to the sub-9 pace of their own accord. I find myself with a group whose Boston-qualifying time is 3:45, and I fear what my arrogance will cost me after mile 20. I know I trained at a pace a minute slower than this. Then, at mile 12, the first true crisis: a water station is missing, and there is no sign of it. It means three miles without water I know I need–my foot first cramped miles ago. I’ve been able to run on, but my stride is affected when the cramps hit, and if my leg compensates, it’s a long way to go on a tired leg. I try to dedicate my brain to the task of understanding which matching water station will be missing as I return on this out-and-back course. The turnaround is at mile 14, and our cheering station is back, encouraging us. 8:46, 8:43, 8:46, 8:38, 9:03.
Miles 16-20. Little G bore the burden of leading for much of the first half of the race, so I take point and try to hold the pace now. I remind her that an aid station is missing at mile 16, so we take our gel a little early, choking it down. We’re tired, and we think we need the energy. In this portion of the race, we’re trying to give ourselves mile markers, or things to change up and break the monotony of the distance. I plug an earbud in at mile 16 and start my playlist. I have ten miles to go; after this it’s a single-digit countdown. Our cheerleader extraordinaire meets us at the mile 17 aid station, and our hearts are lifted. But we are tired and hurting. We’re still moving, but we don’t remember ever racing this hard. Our brains are battling our legs at every moment. The beauty of the trail feels monotonous and tired now. The 5mph wind feels like a gale. The single-digit countdown is endless–the next water station is, literally, miles away. At the mile 20 water station I remind Little G we can lose our fuel belts. I take another gel and give our sweet crew the last few ounces of weight I can lose, and push on. 8:51, 8:55, 9:03, 8:56, 9:30.
Miles 21-25. We tell ourselves we can slow down, because we have to. I remind us that we’re crashing because all the blood is in our legs. Our brains cannot be trusted. We must keep running. A kind-hearted father and his little girl are offering orange sections and, though my stomach turns at the sight of them, I figure we need sugar. We stop to try to get some down, struggling to chew, and move on after muttering a heartfelt thank-you. At mile 22, we get to a street crossing on our way back to town, and as I make it to a light post, I’m paralyzed–my leg is cramped from hip to arch. The police officer stopping traffic asks if I need a medic and I know that if the medic gets ahold of me I’ll log a DNF. I call her off and tell Little G to go on without me. She hesitates, but she knows I’m right. She moves on, and I watch her as I struggle to return to my stride. There are no tears, but I know my sub-4 finish is melting in front of my eyes. Foolishly, I try a running stride, and am humbled to the ground for my efforts. I am gradually able to walk, and for the next few miles I return to walk-running, gradually discovering that I can run very slowly, but that the slightest change in incline or terrain will bring paralyzing cramps to both legs, thus reducing me, again, to a walking stride. I have lots of time to consider what arrogance in preparation, fueling, or early pacing brought me to this. In a big race, many would have passed me, but in a field of only 300, only a half-dozen do, and most ask if there is something they can do, though they know there isn’t. They know I will crawl to the finish if I have to. This is a marathon, and I am so close. At the last aid station, I tell the volunteer I will never run a marathon again, and he says, “I say that every time!” 9:31, 10:58, 12:14, 10:52, 11:01.
Mile 26-finish. As we return to town, the kindest, run-friendliest police officer ever is on the course, and he doesn’t tell us we have a mile to go–because we don’t. He says, “One-point-one miles to go. You’re going to finish this!” I will not cry, not because I am not frustrated–I am incensed at my own defeat–but because he is right. I am going to conquer this distance, and then I will never do this again. I cross the huge intersection, climbing the gigantic hill that wasn’t there on the outbound portion of the course, and head onto the Florida State campus, where the people lining the course refuse to cheer for anyone but their own runner. A passing runner, having finished her race, says, “You make it look easy!” I find the energy to tell her, “You should have seen me ten yards ago,” and she laughs. She knows. I make it onto the track, cross a mat, and the loudspeaker calls my name. “Now on the track, finishing the marathon, Karina Dulin, from Jupiter, Florida.” I’d give anything to quit, but have too much pride to do it in front of all the people gathered on the infield. I don’t have the energy for a sprint, but make a steady push for the finish line. I have finished the marathon, and I have left it all on the course. I could have run no faster. 10:46, 3:22 for the last .2.
Postrace. A kind volunteer drapes a medal over my neck, and I am thankful for its weight. Our crew extraordinaire is on me immediately, holding me up. I must look as badly as I feel, and I sound worse. “Do you want to sit down?” “Yes.” I make a move to the ground and realize immediately it’s a bad idea–”No.” I wander to the track wall and lean-sit against it. “Do you want your shoes off?” “Yes.” She starts untying them, and I realize if I take them off my foot will cramp irreversibly and I’ll be on the ground, writhing in pain. “No!”
Finally, with her support, I made it to Little G, who was on the infield, and I found a way to make it down to the grass. My lower half was in intense pain, and moving was agony. Postrace food was somewhat lacking, and I couldn’t get warm, probably because I was dehydrated. We stayed for the marathon awards, since Little G placed in her age group (woot! woot!) and got McDonald’s fries on the way home–they might just be the perfect postrace recovery food.
My 4:06 represents a 24-minute improvement from my first time at the distance, when I ran the 26 miles in a downpour and under the adage of “whatever you do, don’t run too fast.” I definitely raced this one, and I’m glad I did. Crossing the line in absolute agony was a victory in its own way.
As for my resolve to never run another 26.2? It might be flagging, just a little bit.
After four months of training and preparing, race day is upon us. Little G and I are on the couch at her mom’s house in Tallahassee, hydrating, studying the course map, and determinedly staying off our feet. Tomorrow, we face 26.2 road miles. Ready or not, marathon day has come.
I have now trained for three marathons, but this will only be my second test at the distance. I come into it with conflicting emotions, having trained differently than I ever have in the past. For good or for bad, the training is all behind us now–it remains only to face the course, the conditions, and myself.
Conditions couldn’t be better: it looks like tomorrow will dawn crisp and clear, though much cooler than all our training. It’s only forecast to be about 40 degrees at gun time, so we expect that it won’t get out of the 50s the entire time we’re running. Though all our training runs were in the 70s, we know we couldn’t ask for better running conditions, but we’re having to do some thinking around our gear and wardrobe to adjust to the cooler temperatures and make sure we don’t start like jackrabbits in the crisp air.
As for the course, we drove most of it today, and it’s a beauty. It has some curves (even a few sharp turns) in the early miles, as we run around the Florida State campus, but as we approach mile 6 it reaches a paved bike trail and remains on it for the remainder of the distance. On that trail, it is flat and fairly straight; aid stations are constant every other mile, and we should even see real, flushing toilets at three different points (contrary to some reports, most runners do indeed stop for mother nature). We will hit the turnaround at mile 14 and head on back, seeing the same ugly curves as our friends on the return to the city, to the campus, and to the FSU track, where we’ll do about a half-lap on the way to the finish.
Best of all, on our race-course drive today, Little G’s daughter, our race-day support crew, got to check out different places at which she’ll be able to park and meet us, and it’s nice to look forward to her support along the race. We also found a spot along mile 21 or 22 where we can throw her the last of our dead weight–fuel belts, long-sleeve shirts, gloves–and pick up some speed for the last push for home.
And so it all comes down to this. In a few hours, we will be having our prerequisite pasta dinner, laying out our carefully chosen race-day outfits, shoes, and bibs, and settling in for a restless night. It’s race day, and I am ready.
About this time last year, I wrote about the inherent difficulty in running the middle miles of a race. But I’m reminded that training seasons have middle miles too, those slogging weeks when nothing particularly exciting is happening, especially on the long runs. The excitement of circling the race on the calendar has long subsided, and the thrill of saying “I’m running twenty miles tomorrow,” has not quite set in. Yet most weekends the challenge of the long run grows, and, with it, the monotony of the routine, from the pre-run prep to the recovery. Yes, the middle portion of the training program can be burdensome.
And it’s here that Little G and I find ourselves, watching our long runs stretch from 14 to 16 to 18 miles as the weather outside changes from hot and humid to windy and unpredictable. Our weekly patterns have changed as well; we’ve gone from charging the bridge to running short intervals to sharpen our speed. Our conversations on the run have morphed; we’ve already started obsessing about what we’ll wear on race day, fearing cold temperatures may require us to wear long pants for the duration of the race, and fearing that we’ll lack appropriate weather to practice in.
This week’s run was a 16-miler, and we were tasked with running it at a quick pace, somewhere between 9:30 and 9:45, or about 15 to 30 seconds faster than we ran our long runs before PT H put us on her training schedule. Under her tutelage, aiming to keep a slightly faster tempo for our long runs, we’ve averaged just under 9:20. We knew that the pace was going to start getting increasingly tougher as the long runs got longer, but we also know we’re well under her target pace, and we have a lot of wiggle room before we hit the bottom of her assigned range. We could run each mile almost 30 seconds slower and still be in range.
We’ve been starting very early–say, 4:30 early–because we’ve discovered we like having the road to ourselves, and we also like being done with the whole thing super early. So, even though we were both running woefully late this Saturday, it was about 4:40 when we were pointing our Garmin Forerunners at the sky, double-knotting shoelaces, and making sleepy small talk, and just a few minutes later we were setting out.
We hit the beachfront road doing our new chatty long-run pace, about 9:15-9:30, and stopped for water about two miles in. I mourned that it was cloudy, because I’d hoped we’d see a few shooting stars as Tempel-Tuttle passed. But, sure enough, there was no one else on the road, and our conversation was lighthearted and varied. And then, almost immediately after our water stop, the skies just opened up. The rain came in buckets, all at once. One moment we were running dry, under cloudy skies, and the next we were soaked through, running under raindrops that hurt as they struck our skin*. We were struck dumb for a moment. Then I said, “Memories of Gasparilla,” and Little G said, “It’s good training,” and we tucked our chins and ran on.
At the 3.5-mile mark, we stopped to take our first gels and use the bathrooms (alas, they were locked), and Little G wrung her socks and insoles out. We decided to wait a few minutes, thinking someone would come and open the bathrooms pretty soon. That didn’t happen. We made conversation, half-heartedly hoping someone would happen by and offer us a ride home. That didn’t happen either. We watched the rain fall onto the palm trees by the light of the streetlights, convinced that, eventually, it would slack off. That, also, did not happen.
After a long wait, which only served to turn us into shivering, blue-lipped messes, we knew we only had one way out. We considered every possibility and decided we’d run on home, finishing 8 or 10 miles at best and getting together later in the afternoon to do the remaining miles.
But, as we put in our steady miles toward the cars, the rain eventually stopped, and the sun came out. We made it back to the cars with 12 miles on, and though time was getting very tight (I had to be home in time to get the Boy to his soccer game), we decided to finish the run, just so we could have it in the books. The result: the last four in 8:35, 8:55, 8:45, 8:25, which brought our overall pace for the day’s run to 9:20, even though, running through ankle-deep water, we’d made a conscious decision to slow down our pace (even having made that decision, we still ran only two miles over 9:45).
We have two more weeks of this middle month of training, which includes two truly fast-paced mid-length runs (9:15-9:30) and one 18-miler. We’ve done three interval sessions, and have one remaining. I get to run my one and only fall race on Thanksgiving Day, and have high hopes for myself as I run for the chance to score a fresh apple pie.
And, then, soon enough, it’ll be December, the month of tempo runs and twenties, and our last hard push until the taper. I’d forgotten, I think, how much I love the beginning of hard training, the thrill of the goal, and the excitement of setting high expectations for myself. But I’d also forgotten about these middle weeks–these long, windy days of endless, somewhat joyless runs, of checking the schedule and checking runs off, one by one.
In the middle . . . In some ways, I think it’s where my race gets made or broken, by how well I can keep my act together in the middle miles. And I’m trying to remember that, in these middle weeks.
*Studying the historical data for the day on Weather Underground, I found out later that we had over two inches of rain fall in forty-five minutes. And then the rain stopped. Just. Like. That.