We runners are a unique breed. How long after finishing a grueling race are you thinking about signing up for your next one?
For me, it’s usually a few minutes.
While I’m still taking my time recovering from the marathon, setting new goals is something I like to do right away. I’m going to take a break from long distances for a while and for the first time in three years, I will not sign up for a spring marathon (please, somebody stop me if I do!).
I’m planning on sharpening my speed and racing shorter distances only. A lot of them.
So while I’m got my feet up for now, this spring will be quite different from what I’m used to.
My coach at Runners Connect is in favor of switching focus. “If you want to run a fast marathon,” Coach Danny says, “you have to stop chasing the marathon each spring and fall, year after year. Be a better well-rounded runner.”
The idea is to view the 5K to 10K races as a third workout in a week. If you are racing, you don’t need a long run every single week to maintain endurance. “I like to race or get a third tempo/hills/speed workout in one weekend and then a long run the next. Alternate between the two,” he told me.
So starting next month, I’ll line up for a 5K and try to race about every other weekend. To keep me motivated, I finally joined the Asheville Track Club so I can compete in their Grand Prix Series. To qualify for a monetary prize at the end of the year, I’ll need to run at least 10 of their approved races and the higher I place, the more points I’ll get. Hopefully, I’ll do well enough that the majority (if not all) of my race fees are paid for! There’s some pretty tough competition on the women’s side this year, so we’ll see how it goes.
The other goal I have is to get back to more serious strength training. As I wrote last summer, I had to give up my favorite tough ST class because it was making me too tired and sore for running well. Now that I will be decreasing my mileage, I’m hoping that I can add more strength back in.
The speed work and the strength training should also help with my body composition. As any marathoner knows, logging tons of miles does not always lead to weight loss. I had the highest volume I’ve ever had last fall and I still could not get down to race weight. In fact, I was 8 pounds heavier at the start of Charleston than I was at Boston, despite keeping my diet the same, if not a little better.
Obviously, I was faster even though I was heavier, but that is most certainly due to the training. Weight is not everything, but is does make a big difference as I wrote about last year, so I’m hoping I can get in top shape this spring so I can race faster in the fall.
Most importantly, I’m looking forward to the change in focus this spring. I’m the type of person who loves the process of marathon training, just putting my head down and doing the work. Maybe I’m a masochist who enjoys the punishment or maybe I’m a martyr who likes to be seen suffering for a goal.
But I don’t think that’s really it. I love that in running hard work equals accomplishment, which is not always true in the rest of my life. Actually, that’s not always true in running either, but most of the time it feels that way.
I have not chosen a fall marathon yet and I’ll take my time to decide. But whatever it ends up being, I’m hoping that by skipping a marathon this spring I’ll be ready to crush some big goals this fall.
What do you think? Do you race marathons every spring and fall? Or more? How do you fit shorter races into your schedule?
I’ve been looking forward to this week for a while now.
The race is done and behind me. I’m happy with how it went and I can relax. I can eat whatever I want. No more grueling workouts. No more planning what I eat around when I run. No more limiting portions or passing on a glass of wine.
This week is what I’ve been dreaming of. Giant bars of chocolate and unlimited pots of coffee. Baskets of salty chips and guacamole before the extra large burrito with the giant neon-green margarita. Putting my feet up and reading a book and happily not running a single step.
But then a funny thing happened. The glorious week of all-out indulgence unceremoniously fizzled out.
Right after the race, I downed a bottle of water and happily cashed in my two free mimosa tickets. I crave salt and fat after a race and my sweet husband Paul was prepared with family-sized bag of waffle cut potato chips. (In a perfect world, I’d love a steaming hot order of greasy french fries as soon as I’m done, but potato chips are a close second.)
He brought me a chocolate bar as well, but it took a while this time to actually want to eat it. I did manage a Clif Builder’s bar after the awards ceremony to help start the recovery process with some protein.
After dipping our toes in the cold ocean just to say we did, lunch was an enormous plate of cashew tofu and veggies at an authentic Thai place in Mount Pleasant. Then it was back to the condo we rented to binge-watch Netflix snuggled up with a box of cheap cabernet.
But a couple glasses in and I’d had enough. After only having maybe two drinks a month for the last several months, drinking more than two in one night sadly didn’t feel as luxurious as I expected. I didn’t feel drunk, just done.
The morning after the race, we watched the sunrise over Battery Park and found an amazing vegan brunch place on our way out of Charleston called the Gnome Cafe. Paul is not vegan, but loves good food of any kind. Raised in the south, the man knows his biscuits. He said his mushroom “bacon” biscuit smothered with Daiya cheese was the best biscuit sandwich he’s ever eaten, vegan or not, which says a lot. I filled up with a huge breakfast burrito and topped it off with a chocolate chip cookie the size of my face.
But in the days since we’ve been home, my eating habits have slipped back to my usual healthy whole foods. I thought I’d be craving treats and indulgences, but as boring as it sounds, the junk just doesn’t interest me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, that giant cookie was delicious, but I felt overstuffed and lethargic after such a big meal. Not exactly an experience I want to have repeatedly.
What this week has taught me is that I simply feel better when I eat well and avoid filling my belly to the brim. Shocking, right?
There is also scientific evidence food cravings are largely controlled by the bacteria in our intestines. Because my gut bacteria are so accustomed to thriving on minimally processed whole foods, they are not sending signals to my brain to tell me to eat an entire pan of frosted brownies. So I can blame my bacteria for craving kale instead of cookies.
This is good news, of course, but a little bit of a letdown. I imagined that I’d go as hard-core in recovery as training, downing enormous banana splits for breakfast and platters of loaded nachos before lunch. Sure, I’m snacking on a few extra handfuls of salted peanuts every day and I have had a glass of wine with dinner every night since the race, but that’s about as dramatic as it gets.
One thing that I have done right is I haven’t run at all yet and I haven’t wanted to. I’m feeling about back to normal five days after the race and the mild January weather is starting to tempt me to lace up my shoes again. I’m not sure if I can wait a full week to get my jog on again or not, but I want to really be sure my body and my brain have a true break before getting back into it.
Perhaps I’ll just grab a handful of peanuts and think about it.
My goal for Charleston was to have a happy race. I wanted to do well for myself but I did not want to get anywhere near the edge of everything I’ve got. I needed a confidence builder and Charleston delivered.
The temperature at the start was a comfortable and sunny 53 degrees and would rise into the high 6os by the end of the race. This is warmer than ideal by about 10-15 degrees for racing, but I didn’t mind it.
I woke up three hours before the race and had my usual breakfast of two slices of whole wheat toast with almond butter and jelly with a banana, a small cup of coffee, and about half the juice from a can of sliced beets.
Two hours before the race, I mixed 40 grams of cornstarch into the rest of the beet juice and quickly chugged that down (that’s a little rough on the tastebuds so the quicker, the better). That would be the last liquid I would take before the race. An hour before, I took one 40g caffeine mint. Then 45 minutes before the start, I ate two Nature’s Bakery fig bars.
For fuel during the race, I mixed 60 grams of cornstarch, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of Morton’s Lite salt in my 8 ounce fuel bottle with enough already-mixed True Lemon lemonade to fill the bottle. This is almost double the starch of my original recipe, but the mix is still quite thin.
I had practiced this concentration in training, but never at the marathon distance, so I made up two bottles of fuel. The plan was to have my husband hand me the second bottle at mile 18.
I wanted to stay on or around a 3:05 finish pace, which translates to 7:03/mile or faster. I wanted to run the first half conservatively to save energy for the second half, but not so slow that I would have to make up time.
Miles 1- 5: 6:38, 6:57, 6:43, 6:59, 6:53
The first mile is always too quick for me. The full marathon runs with the half marathon, so there are a lot of fast runners in a big group. This makes it more fun (at this point), but it is easy to get swept up with a faster pace. I never completely trust GPS during the first mile, so when I saw the 6:38, I tried to reign it in.
I was feeling so fresh for these first miles, that it was hard not to think about whether I really could try to make 3 hours. But I let that go and tried to stay in the present moment. We were running along Battery Park near the water and it was just gorgeous.
As we left downtown Charleston and headed north, the scenery changed from historic to industrial. The half marathon turned away from the full just before mile 10 and the marathoners began an out-and-back. I’m really happy with my pacing here. I was feeling fine and my breathing was still easy. I had started taking sips of my fuel at this point as well as grabbing a gulp of water every two miles at aid stations.
Miles 11-15: 7:01, 6:52, 6:48, 6:55, 7:03. 11.8 mile split: 1:23:29 (7:04 pace, was my GPS pace off?)
Just after mile 12, we ran out a pier on the water and turned around. This was where I could see the women ahead of me for the first time. Elite runner Esther Atkins (who was just on a training run) was well over a mile ahead of the next woman at this point. I could see a woman in green ahead of me for a few miles and I was only about 50 yards behind her at the turn around. I was in fifth place.
As we headed back to re-join the half runners, I thought I had a chance to pass the woman in green. When I clicked off a 6:48 mile at mile 13 and still couldn’t catch her, I decided to let her go. Then I saw the third place woman starting to walk. I was in fourth.
At mile 14.5 the full course met back up with the half course. We had just run 4 more miles than the half runners at that point so the road was full to the edges with slower runners. I lost sight of my competition and tried my best to stay at the edge of the crowd. At one point, I hopped up onto the sidewalk so I could have a clear path.
Then, just before a turn thick with runners, I saw a woman struggling at about my pace and I passed her easily. It was the woman in second at the turn around.
I knew I was starting to slow down a little, but I was still feeling okay. Third place is really good in a marathon and I wasn’t ready to push any harder to go faster. I just wanted to maintain.
But in order to maintain this late in the race, I needed to push harder.
At mile 17, a took another caffeine mint. The minty taste felt refreshing and I hoped it would give me just a little boost of energy, bypassing my stomach.
I saw my husband at mile 18 and I tossed my fuel bottle before him and grabbed the new one. I still had about 25% left in the first bottle, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need it, but you never know.
This part of the course is a series of loops that begin and end around Park Circle like petals on a flower. Esther Akins was so far ahead that I saw her a couple of times at the beginning of a loop that she was already completing, but I never saw the second-place woman in green again.
My music stopped for whatever reason around mile 20 and my upbeat pop music was silenced. Not the best timing.
The last 10K was clearly my weakest. I knew that I had to exponentially increase my effort just to keep the same pace and I thought I was, but every time I looked at my watch, I was surprised at how slow I was.
At mile 22, a volunteer cheerfully shouted, “you’re almost there!”
“No, we’re not,” I muttered. Don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate everyone who volunteers at a race, but for the love of everything sacred, DO NOT say “you’re almost there” to anyone in a marathon until mile 26. It’s just cruel.
Another mentally challenging part was that there were very few marathoners on the course at this point but there were a lot of 3-hour half marathoners walking and chatting and listening to music. It was not nearly as crowded as it was earlier in the race, so passing was not a problem, but I didn’t have a pack to pace with. My body was tired, but my brain was even more so.
This is when my sweet but negative Nancy voice in my head got loud. She means well and just wants to protect me, but she does not care a thing about my racing goals. You’re in third, she said kindly, just hang on and get there. No need to speed up.
In training, I concentrate hard on my breathing patterns. I know that when I’m working hard, I breathe in for two steps and out for one, so I told myself to forget my heavy legs and just get into hard-effort breathing. I would speed up a little, but then involuntarily slow back down.
About a half mile from the finish, a pacer from the half marathon who had long finished shouted out that I was on 3:05 pace. Instantly, I forgot about all the mental mind games telling me to slow down and I kicked as hard as I could. There were several hard turns before the finish and I clipped each one as tight as I could, drove my legs forward and pumped my arms.
The last quarter mile was at 6:45 pace, proving that I still had plenty of energy left in my legs if my brain would just allow it.
The clock was ticking closer to 3:07 and I was determined to get under it. With three seconds to spare, I did.
So while I’m not thrilled with the last 10K, I am very happy with how the race went overall. Nutritionally, it was perfect and it’s great to know I only need one 8 ounce bottle. I have never felt better physically during a race and I know that’s because I stayed within myself and didn’t go to the well. It was still a hard effort, but I’m satisfied knowing that I still have more to give.
And to share the podium with an elite American marathoner whose PR is 2:32 was so much fun. Sure, she beat me by 20 minutes and was practically jogging, but I don’t care!
Now it’s time to savor, rest, recover, and EAT! Not sure how many days I will take off running just yet, but after such a long training cycle, I’m really looking forward to it.
Taper week can do some crazy things to runners. Some people feel nervous and anxious about the big day. Without as much running scheduled to ease the mind, nerves can get a bit frazzled. We worry about losing fitness and gaining weight, we obsessively stalk the weather forecast, and we stress about making sure every last detail is taken care of.
We get the taper tantrums.
As a running coach for Runners Connect, I get a lot of questions about taper week. Every individual responds to taper a little differently, but there are some basic rules that may help the time go by a little easier, without losing your mind.
What should you eat? How do you carbo load?
This is one of the questions I get the most. As a general rule, you do not want to change things up too much in the week before your race because it is not enough time for your body to adjust. Taper week is not the time to experiment with a radical new diet or stuff yourself with pasta. You should eat a normal, healthful diet of whole foods, especially plants, just like you should all year round.
Because you are running less during this week, you are not exhausting your muscles’ glycogen stores so they will stay full from a plant-rich diet.
Every morning, I eat the exact same thing: 2 slices of my homemade whole wheat sourdough bread, lightly slathered with almond butter and jam. Making homemade bread is something that I just love to do and it’s a great way to fill some restless time during taper that I normally would have spent running.
But I’m careful not to go overboard with the bread. The main sources of my carbs this week are starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bananas), fruits and veggies, legumes, and whole, unprocessed grains. The day before the race, I’ll choose those with a little less fiber for easy digestion, making sure that my biggest meal is lunch and not dinner.
When do I back off strength training?
Again, you should not be trying to change things up too much from normal during taper, just back off the length and intensity. So if you normally strength train twice a week, you should still do that, but your routine should be shorter, with fewer reps and lighter weights (if any). You should never lift to fatigue during taper. Remember, you will not gain any fitness taper week. You are simply going through the motions so that your body is tricked into thinking everything’s normal.
Should I be this tired? I thought taper was supposed to make me feel better!
Some of us just don’t feel good during taper. Some people even start to get sick because the immune system lets its guard down after months of hard training.
Be careful with this one. If you normally get weekly massages (lucky you!), then staying with your routine is probably the best plan, as long as you let your therapist know to take it easy on you this week.
But if you do not have a regular massage routine, this is not the time to start. Massages are wonderful, but they can also leave you sore, which is the opposite of what you want.
What should my goal pace be?
You should already have determined your goal pace at least a couple weeks before your race so that you get a chance to practice and perfect it.
As much as we runners love round numbers and big goals, that’s not the best way to choose your goal pace. For anything but your very first marathon where you are simply trying to finish, goal marathon pace should feel a step harder than easy. The more experienced you are at the marathon, the more you can push the effort level. If you’ve had a good 12-16 week build-up, the goal pace should be something that felt pretty hard the first few weeks, more manageable in the middle, and good (but still a little scary) toward the end.
If you’ve had a less-than great build up, you’ll want to be a bit more conservative.
This is my seventh marathon taper and I’m feeling surprisingly calm and relaxed this time. It’s as if I have nothing more than a long run on the books for this weekend. It’s not that I don’t care about the race this weekend–I most certainly do–but this time, my perspective has changed. For the better.
Part of this comes from experience. I’ve been through this before and I know that allowing myself to stress about the race for an entire week does nothing but harm. I am determined to run this race to the best of my ability which includes sticking to conservative speed limits in the first half and then just seeing where my legs will take me.
The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.
—Hunter S. Thompson
I am eight days away from my goal marathon in Charleston. With a lot less running on the calendar, I’ve been reflecting on how this goal feels different from my last.
I’m not planning to achieve my big dream of a sub-three hour marathon this time because my perspective on that has shifted. It’s not that I’ve stopped wanting be be a member of the sub-three club; I still do. But as I have gotten closer to it, I’ve realized that I need to have a bit more patience with it.
I still firmly believe that I can and will do it. Just not this time.
The irony is that I’ve never had a better shot at achieving it than now.
I subscribe to an excellent running newsletter called The Morning Shakeout by Mario Fraioli. This week Mario talked about a beautiful letter written in the fifties by Hunter S. Thompson to a friend about goals and the purpose of life. “Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience,” Thompson writes. “As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes… Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”
I’ve had a year of training and trying for this goal and for various reasons, I have not reached it. I am stronger, fitter, and faster than I have ever been in my life, but each attempt at the elusive 3-hour mark has shifted my perspective on why I want it and how I plan to get there.
“We must make the goal conform to the individual,” Thompson writes, “rather than make the individual conform to the goal.”
My race goal this time is to finish well within my abilities. This is not to say that I believe it will be easy since I’m setting the bar a little lower. It will still be the fastest I’ve ever run 26.2 miles if all goes well, so I know it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done no matter what the time clock says. But this will not be a break-three-at-all-costs event. Not that I consciously had that in mind before, but I was so sure that I could do it that I didn’t prepare myself for what would happen if I didn’t.
I have learned a lot since my DNF in Richmond that I can almost see it as a gift. I learned that I cannot handle much caffeine on race day. I’ve learned how to make a far better fuel for my body than sugary gels. And I’ve learned that quitting, even when it’s the right thing to do, hurts far worse than the pain of racing itself.
I will have a new mantra on marathon day. I’ve been using it quite a bit lately when things are getting tough and I want to slow down. It’s “make yourself proud.” I’ve experienced what it’s like to cross the finish line knowing I gave it my best. It’s a feeling of pride and accomplishment like no other.
I have finally figured it out. I know now what caused the race-ending stomach pain at the Richmond Marathon in November. And it wasn’t just the acidic, burning cauldron in my belly that sidelined me.
I didn’t even mention the lightheadedness and the palpable pounding of my heart in my chest at mile 14. I never talked about that part because I didn’t want to scare my family.
The culprit was caffeine.
Caffeine is the most widely-used, legal performance-enhancing drug in the world. If you race and do not use caffeine, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage from your competition. In short, caffeine is safe and it works.
According to Matt Fitzgerald, a widely known sports nutritionist and marathon exert, “it appears caffeine enhances performance in shorter events by stimulating the nervous system in ways that enable the muscles to contract faster and more efficiently. In longer events, caffeine delays fatigue by reducing the athlete’s perception of effort. Specifically, it increases the concentration of hormone-like substances in the brain called endorphins during exercise. The endorphins affect mood state, reduce perception of pain, and create a sense of well-being.”
Delaying fatigue while reducing perception of effort and pain? Sign me up!
As a coffee drinker, I have always had a cup of black coffee on the morning of a race, just like every other day of my adult life. But I can’t drink too much liquid before a marathon because I don’t want to have to stop. So one small cup is all I have.
A few weeks before Boston last year, I started learning more about caffeine and performance and learned that taking a caffeine pill 90 minutes before a race was the most effective way to get the right amount of caffeine into your body to maximize performance. I also learned that the caffeine in coffee might not actually help with faster times. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it might have to do with some of the other components in coffee blocking the ergogenic effects. For racing, getting caffeine in a pill is cheap, convenient and effective.
So I tested it out before race day. At the time, I had only one more long run to go, so I practiced my race day routine and popped a 200mg caffeine pill 90 minutes before my long, easy run. I had no issues. No jitters, no heart racing, no stomach issues, no problem.
Then I tried it in Boston. As you can read here in my race report, I was doing really well for 19 miles, on pace to break (or get really close to) a 3-hour marathon. But the heat, wind, and hills finally did me in. I only mentioned briefly how sick to my stomach I was feeling but it never occurred to me that it could be from caffeine that late in the race. I was trying everything I could to not throw up for the last 6 miles.
I used the caffeine pills a few times before Richmond to practice everything for race day, but I don’t remember ever using them for a long, fast run. I never bothered using them during hard workouts, because I didn’t want to overuse them. I made a few caffeinated gels, but each one only had a quarter of the potency of a full pill, so I never felt any ill effects.
In Richmond, my stomach was nearly empty at the starting line due to several missed points in my pre-race plan, but I did remember to take the caffeine pill 90 minutes before the race. When I took my first caffeinated gel at mile 4, my stomach instantly revolted. I had thought I had made the gel too concentrated with salt, but I now know that wasn’t the real issue.
How did I figure out it was the caffeine pill? Because the exact same thing happened to me on my last fast long run for this cycle. Excruciating, burning sensation in my stomach. Uneasy dizziness. Mild, but scary heart palpitations.
And it only happens when I’m running long and fast.
But how could I be taking too much? I drink coffee every day! I’m used to caffeine! It’s safe! It’s effective!
Not so fast. On race day and on the day of my fast 22 miler, I drank my normal cup of coffee in the morning. There’s no way to tell exactly how much caffeine is in a home-brewed cup of coffee, but it’s anywhere from 100-200mg in an 8-ounce cup. Then I’d take the 200mg pill. That means I could have been ingesting as much as 400mg of caffeine. Is that a lot?
Most studies on caffeine have shown that a dose of 3-6mg/kilogram of body weight improves performance and higher doses do not produce better results. I weigh about 50-52 kilos, so my optimum range is 150-312mg of caffeine.
I went way overboard.
The negative side effects of too much caffeine are nervousness, gastrointestinal distress, heart palpitations, dizziness or lightheadedness, vomiting, and rapid heart beat. It’s been shown that caffeine reduces the amount of blood flow to the heart while exercising, which can be a particularly dangerous scenario for those with coronary disease or heart abnormalities. It can be a compounding factor in the rare cases of heart-related deaths while running.
The over-caffeination of marathon runners is a fascinating topic as more and more companies produce gels, drinks, gums, and mints promising performance. But there can be a downside that is not talked about much. If you are curious, this is a very interesting article that surveyed marathon runners about how much caffeine they are ingesting for a race and the responses are staggering.
For my next race in Charleston, I will still drink a small (very small) cup of coffee when I wake up. I’ve also been practicing with caffeine mints that only contain 40mg of caffeine and mainly get absorbed in the mouth, bypassing the digestive system.
It’s still a bit hard to wrap my head around the fact that a tiny pill that was supposed to make me go faster with less pain caused so much of it. I suppose I can take some solace knowing that it was not lack of fitness that sabotaged my race.