Training for Boston? Here are Six Myths About the Race You Should Know

Before you ask, no, I’m not going to Boston this year.

But we have so many athletes we coach at Runners Connect training for it that I thought it would be helpful to share some tips and advice and bust a few training and racing myths that come up.

Myth #1: The best training for Boston is hill repeats.

Hill repeats are awesome for any marathon, no matter what the course.  You run up a fairly steep hill at a hard effort for 30-75 seconds and then walk or jog down as your rest and then repeat.  The number of sets you do depends on your experience and ability.

Hard, short hill repeats build leg strength, develop neuromuscular connections, and get your heart pounding hard.

Because you are fighting gravity, you cannot run as fast as you would on flat.  That means you can work harder at a slower speed which lessens the chance of injury.

But sprinting up a hill over and over again is not specific enough to what you will face on your way to Boston.  Hill repeats are great to sprinkle into the beginning of your training cycle (January and February) about once or twice a month, but as you get into the thick of training, you’ll want to get more focused.

Myth #2: Heartbreak Hill is a beast so training on uphills is essential.

Despite its reputation, Heartbreak is not a steep hill.  It’s only about a half mile long and a 4.5% gradient.  It also is not a continuous incline so you have small breaks of more flat road as you ascend.

So spending a ton of time training on uphills would not be the best use of your training.  All hill work will make you stronger, but Heartbreak Hill is takes up less than 2% of the Boston Marathon, so while you shouldn’t ignore uphill training, it shouldn’t be your primary focus.

The first reason why it’s so hard is because it’s at mile 20 which is a rough point in any marathon (and that’s after you’ve been working the rest of the Newton hills for 3 miles).

But the real reason is all the downhill that comes before it.  Running downhill is fun and freeing and it’s easy to get carried away because of how effortless it can feel.

But you pay a big price in your quads for all that descent.  Running fast downhill creates 54% more impact force on your legs than running on flat and 75% more breaking force.  And you likely won’t feel a thing until you have to change gears and go uphill.

Myth #3: Since most of the race is downhill, you need to train mostly on downhill.

Please don’t do that!  Yes, you absolutely need to train on downhills.  But again, because of those high impact forces, you have to be judicious about it and the risk of injury is higher.

Treat downhill running like any hard workout.  You wouldn’t spend all of your training cycle running only marathon pace, would you? (please say no!) You also shouldn’t spend every run, or even most of your runs, going downhill.

Slowly increase your volume and intensity on the downs over time.

I recommend in January to start incorporating rolling hills into your easy runs every week.  If you are not used to running hills at all, try once a week.  If you run them regularly, you can do most, if not all of your easy runs on gentle hills, being careful to keep the effort easy.

Be sure that your shoes are cushioned enough to take the extra pounding that downhills require.

Take your headphones off and listen to your footfalls on downhills.  Do you sound like a ninja or Godzilla?  Quiet, light steps are less pounding which will make a big difference in the race.

In February, start adding some downhills to any of your marathon-pace workouts, but avoid any speed on downhills that is faster than about 5-10 seconds marathon pace.  You don’t want to spend mile after mile going downhill fast–a little goes a long way.

In March you will have some of your longest runs.  On the easy-pace long runs you ideally want to approximate the course as best you can by  running a mostly downhill route with flat or a slight hill at the end.

I don’t recommend that you run every single long run on a downhill course because the injury risk is too high and the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that can result can increase recovery time, which can interrupt your training.

Myth #4: Once you get over Heartbreak, it’s all downhill from there.

This is mostly true in terms of elevation loss, but I find the last 10k of the race to be the most difficult.  Let’s face it, the last 10k of any marathon should be hard, but this will feel like nothing else.

If you went too fast in the first half, your quads will feel like they have been shredded like hamburger meat at this point.  After they’ve been given a 3-mile uphill break, they will have a very tough time getting back into action.

There are also a couple of sneaky little uphills to contend with as you come into Boston, so don’t forget to save a little mental energy for powering through those to the end.

Myth #5: Once you take the right on Hereford, and a left on Boylston, you’re done!

You know those well-meaning but cruel spectators that cheerfully yell, “you’re almost there!” at mile 19?  That’s pretty much the feeling you’ll get when you take the right at Hereford and see that it’s two blocks all uphill.  No, it’s not long or steep, but it’s right at the very end, so it will feel very hard.

Once you crest the top, you turn on Bolyston and it is absolutely amazing!  The crowds are going nuts and you can finally see the finish line.

But what no one tells you is that the finish line feels like a watery mirage in the desert.  It looks like it’s just steps away but it’s nearly a quarter mile, so plan your sprint to the finish well!

Myth #6: Boston is overrated.

I’ve run the Boston Marathon twice and both races were some of the most memorable experiences of my life.  Yes, Boston is crowded, expensive, and a logistical challenge, but I promise you, it lives up to the hype!  So train smart and have fun!

 

So What’s Next? Phoenix in February!

When you are dating someone seriously, the question people always ask is, “So, when you are getting married?”

Once you get married, they ask, “So, when are you having kids?”

Once you have a kid, they ask, “So, when are you having another one?”

And when you finish a race, naturally the first question is, “so, what’s your next race?”

I had purposely not had any plans for after my October 1 marathon.  I wanted to focus on the race and depending on how it went, make a decision after that.

I had joked that if I got my sub-three time I was shooting for, then I could die happy and never have to race another marathon again.

But I didn’t quite get there…

Like I mentioned in my race recap, I’m thrilled with my 6.5 minute personal record, but it really is just a little bittersweet to be just thirty seconds away from cracking the big three.

It feels like unfinished business.

So I have chosen to build on my fitness and race sooner rather than later and I picked the Mesa Phoenix Marathon on February 24!

The road to Mesa

Here’s why I chose this one:

  • February is far enough away that I can recover from Milwaukee and have time for another good buildup.
  • My dad and his wife live in the Phoenix area so it’s a good excuse to go out for a visit
  • It’s competitive enough that I will have a good challenge and shouldn’t be on my own too much
  • It’s point-to-point, which I love, starting at a similar altitude (2082′) to my hometown, and dropping to about 1200′.  It’s a net descent, but not ridiculously so and most of the loss is in the first quarter of the race, with a mostly flat second half so it shouldn’t be too pounding on the quads (I hope!).

Here’s a very quick video of the course:

But I do have to admit that I had a few hesitations signing up for this one.

I had this nagging voice inside my head telling me that running a downhill race for a PR is cheating.

It’s not, of course, since downhill courses are not automatically easier for everyone.  While gravity makes running easier on your lungs, downhills beat up your quads, especially if the descent is early in the race like this one, which makes the finish tougher than an entirely flat course.

And this course is not simply falling off a mountain like many of the big downhill courses like my first BQ in Utah at Big Cottonwood which dropped 4000′ from start to finish (the new course drops 6000′!)

Mesa Phoenix only drops less than 900′ over 26.2 miles.

But it’s enough of a drop that this course, while a Boston qualifier, could not be used to qualify for the Olympic Trials.  No course with a drop of more than 3.25m/km (about 447 ft) counts.

I did consider racing the Rock N Roll Arizona race in January in Phoenix instead, however, just so I wouldn’t have to  wrestle with the “fairness” of a downhill course in my mind.  That course is nice and flat and is an OTQ course, so I could have gone with that one.

But January just felt too close to be able to fit in the training.

Ultimately, I decided that this is really a non-issue. 

While I like to think my talents are limitless, I’m not foolishly optimistic to think that I can chop 15 minutes off my marathon time in four months and qualify for the trials.  I like to set big goals, but that’s just a little too big for even me!

(For now..)

26.2 miles is still 26.2 miles and it will be challenging no matter what the course.

But unlike Milwaukee, I will promise that I won’t sign up for another marathon right after this one.  Perhaps something for the fall of 2018, but no spring marathons.

It will be time to switch gears and try something new.

Like what, you ask?

I’ll let you know after this one…

Race Report: 2017 Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon

I am finally a three-hour marathoner.  Not a sub-three-hour marathoner, but a three-almost-on-the-nose marathoner.

I imagine I now know how Eliud Kipchoge felt when he didn’t quite break the two-hour barrier last May coming in at 2:00:25.

My official time was 3:00:29, 6.5 minutes faster than my best race in January. Sooooo close!

While I still don’t have that 2 next to my name, I’m still so happy and proud.

The runners’ ritual laying out of race clothes the night before.

When I heard that the forecast called for mid-50s-60s and a 20mph headwind, I have to admit, I was nervous.  The temperature was a little warm for good racing, but not terrible.

But the headwind?  That’s like running through molasses. (Here’s how much the wind will affect your pace.)

Then I remembered that the race planned to have a 3-hour pace group.  Those are a bit hard to find in smaller races since you have to be a lot faster than that to be able to lead a group comfortably, so I hoped I could just tuck in behind the pacer and draft.

Turns out there was a big pack of us and we stayed in a tight formation for 23 miles.

Early in the race feeling great! The dude behind me in orange mentioned how well we coordinated.

Before the race, I was careful to eat and drink everything exactly the same way I had done in January at the Charleston Marathon since it worked so well.

I had prepared two bottles of my lemonade starch fuel but this time, I used 60g of tapioca starch instead or corn starch and added 10g of corn syrup for glucose with 5g of powdered fructose.  Each 8oz bottle contained 275 calories and 67g of carbohydrate.

But just like Charleston, I ended up only using one.

Miles 1-5:  6:44, 6:42, 6:54, 6:45, 6:52

When I found out that Thomas, our pacer, was a 2:35 marathoner, I decided to ignore my watch and just blindly trust him.  I knew I would need a pack to brace against the wind as well as the mental relief of not having to worry about pace.  He told me at the start that he planned to run even splits which is what I wanted.

This is a flat course with a slight downhill so aiming for negative splits (second half faster than the first) had a big risk of backfiring.  Not to mention, I’ve never, ever run negative splits, so I wasn’t going to start now.

I occasionally checked my watch, but mostly ignored it.

The pack of 20 or so runners was so tight that we occasionally bumped elbows or clipped each other’s heels.  As I bumped the guy in the navy singlet next to me for the third time, I said, “I’m just going to apologize now for the whole race!”

Miles 6-10:  6:54, 6:54, 6:49, 6:49, 6:51. 10k split: 42:24 (6:49/mile pace)

This stretch of the race weaved through cornfields with dairy cows mooing at us in the early golden light.  We crossed the 10k timing mat and Thomas said we were right on target.

I try to avoid doing any kind of math when I’m running hard, so I took his word for it.

The pace was feeling fine and I was taking sips of my drink every other mile or so.  I was sure to grab a cup of water at each aid station and it turned out to be like a well-choreographed dance as each member of our pack held out an arm to grab a cup from a volunteer.

Miles 11-15:  6:55, 6:49, 6:54, 6:44, 6:40. Half marathon split: 1:30:05 (6:52/mile pace)

Coming through the half with nearly perfectly even splits was certainly reassuring.  As a coach, I so often talk about running negative splits, so there was a little twinge of wondering if the pace was too fast, but I let that thought evaporate as quickly as it popped up.

Looking at it later, wow, mile 15 was fast!  Good thing I wasn’t looking at my watch or I would have slowed down!

Miles 16-20:  6:47, 6:43, 6:53, 6:45, 6:54. Twenty Mile split: 2:16:58 (6:50/mile pace)

At this point we were winding through oak-lined neighborhoods of beautiful historic homes.  Our pack had grown smaller, but was still about 10 people.  The two other women that started in the pack with me had faded.

The pace was still feeling fine for me at this point, but the wind was picking up.  I allowed myself to wonder what would happen if I could speed up in the last 10k.  But I knew I didn’t want to lose the wind protection and the mental boost of the group so I stayed put.

My biggest goal was to stay strong where the race really begins–the final 10K

Miles 21-26.2:  6:52, 6:56, 6:49, 6:44, 7:23, 7:17, 7:10 (pace).  Final time 3:00:29

I was really happy that I felt as strong as I did after crossing the 20 mile mark.  I warned myself not to get too excited because there was a long way to go.

“If there is any day that you can do this,” I thought, “it’s today.”

At mile 23, I even started wondering if now was the time to leave the pack and speed up.  I didn’t want a 3 hour time, I wanted a sub-three!  But I knew as we left the protection of the neighborhoods and headed down to the beach, the winds would be in full force and I didn’t want to be alone for that.

Little did I know…

At some point Thomas mentioned there would be a good downhill at mile 24 before the flat beach and that last year he had taken the group 30 seconds too fast through it.  I quite liked that idea, but just before we got there, the pack started pulling away.

I thought that I was slowing down, I had no idea that they were speeding up.

I lost contact with them even though I was running a sub-three-hour pace.  I just didn’t know it.

So by the time I got down to the lake, I was all alone.

All by myself in front of Bradford Beach, Lake Michigan. The guy in the background would eventually pass me.

The full force of the 20mph headwinds hit me like a brick wall.  One of the bike support volunteers (you can see her shadow in the picture above) told me that I was in third place.

Convinced that the pace group minutes ahead of me was on pace and I had fallen behind, I struggled to run as hard as I could the last two miles.  I was not giving up and I do not think I could have run any harder than I did at that point.

I asked the biker if there was any woman behind me.

“Nope,” she replied, “this is all you.”

Oh, how I wish she had said, “Yes!  She’s right behind you!!”

As I entered the finishing chute, I gave it everything I had and I was shocked to see how close I actually was to three hours.

What? So I wasn’t that far behind after all?
So surprised and happy! The finish line clock was a few seconds behind the official time.

When I talked with my coach, Jeff Gaudette, I told him I was worried that not taking in enough fuel played a big factor.  He said that probably wasn’t the case.

“80-90% of the time you lost was due to the wind,” he told me. “But more importantly, what slowed you was mental.

“When the pack pulled away from you,” he said, “you thought your goal was shot.”  I subconsciously slowed down, even though consciously I was fighting as hard as I could.

Obviously, had I looked at my watch, I would have seen where I was, but at that point, I felt it didn’t matter.  If I was running as hard as I possibly could go, what did the time matter?

Apparently, a lot.

Had I realized that I was not only on pace, but under pace during mile 25, Jeff told me, I would have gotten a shot of confidence and adrenaline that could have taken me to the the finish line just a little faster.

I’m also not in the habit of looking at overall time on a run.  I look at pace, mile splits, and distance and ignore everything else.

Heck, if I simply had just the time of day showing, I would have known how close I was!  Something to remember for next time.

But overall, I am thrilled with this race.  I ended up finishing in 3rd place and I also have the swanky new title of being the 2017 Wisconsin State Female Master’s Champion!

“Don’t cha wish you coulda run 30 seconds faster, Mama?” asked my 8-year-old son the moment I got home.

Yes, of course I do.  But this is still pretty good.

 

Is Less Really More? My New Approach to Marathon Training

Every marathon I’ve run is a completely different experience than the last.

It’s the same distance and the same drama, but yet each one is unique.

I’ve been over-eager to “prove” my abilities and I’ve been hopeful just to finish well, whatever that meant.

This time, yet again, is different.

While my mileage overall ended up a bit higher than I’ve ever done, I dramatically changed the structure of my training.

Gone were the soul-crushing, almost-guaranteed-to-fail cut down workouts (where even mile is supposed to get progressively faster), as well as some big gear-changing runs that drop down to 5k pace at mile 9 that I was rarely be able to accomplish well.

Instead, I played to my strengths and chose workouts I was good at.

I spent more time at the track doing what most runners would classify as 5k work: repetitions of 200 meters or 400 meters at no faster than 5k pace but with quick jogging recovery periods.  This allowed me to spend a good chunk of time at high speed in one workout, but without struggling mentally or physically.

If you’ve never run 200 meters at your 5k pace, it feels very easy, even after the 24th one! I highly recommend this workout if you are also feeling drained from long, tough tempos or threshold work.

The other thing I did differently is I dropped a workout per week most weeks.

I have been running two workouts a week plus a long run for several cycles now.  It just seemed like this was the thing to do.  Sure I was beat down trying to run a tempo on a Thursday after a hard day at the track on Tuesday, but this is marathon training, right?  You are supposed to be tired and sore!

Actually, no, you are not.

First off, only allowing one easy day in between workouts was not enough time to recover for me.  I was not able to run to my full ability on Thursday, but I never connected that it was the lack of recovery time.

I thought it was just me not being “good” enough.

Then one week, I shifted the second workout to Friday to see if I would feel better.  And it worked.

For a while.

Later I learned from some of the (much faster!) runners that I look up to that some of them only do one workout a week with the long run instead of two when they are deep into marathon training.

Really?  That sounds almost blasphemous!  How could you possibly get in all the stimulation that you need for a solid build up on only one hard day a week?

Then I tried it.

Basically, I ran less hard overall, ran the workouts that made me confident instead of defeated, and let the easy miles flow.

Now I’m not saying I just took it easy or did not challenge my limits, however.  I worked hard and ran hard when I needed to.

What I didn’t do was buy into the “one-size-fits-all plan for marathon success.” 

And I have never felt better or stronger in my life.

No makeup, no Photoshop, no filter. Heck, not even a shower! Just ready as I can be.

My key workouts in the last few weeks have gone really well and I feel fresh and well-rested.

Marathon pace is feeling achievable (yet still a touch scary!).

The other thing that I’ve learned this year is that time goals are like bars of wet soap:  the tighter you hold on to them, the easier they slip away.

Of course I’d love to break three hours in the marathon, but that would be just the cherry on the sundae. (Okay, who am I kidding, that would be a huge fu@&ing cherry, but go with me here.)

What I really want to do is run a brave last 10k.  After more than two and a quarter hours of running, I want to be able do what I have trained for, no matter what the weather brings or what the clock says.

The time is important to me, but what matters even more is that I show up for those last 6.2 miles with the same determination and hunger that I have now writing these words.

If I am brave and focused and leave everything I’ve got out there then I cannot fail, even if the minutes click past the magical, yet ultimately arbitrary, three hour mark.

Although one small setback happened today that I hope does not affect race day:

Ahhh!!!

I was five miles into a ten mile run and I had to pee.  As I slowed to a stop, I wasn’t paying attention to my feet and my right ankle just gave way.  Nothing tripped me or got in my way, I just landed wrong and down I went.

I’ve injured my right ankle many times before, so it has been weakened in the past, but it’s been a very long time since it’s given me any issues.

It certainly hurt, but I was hopeful that it was mild.  I jogged a bit further and while it wasn’t excruciating, it didn’t make any sense to run 5 more miles home.  So I called my mom who lives in the neighborhood and she picked me up.

Five hours later as I write this, it still hurts some, but happily (and weirdly) there is virtually no swelling, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign.  I will baby it as much as I can over the next few days and my fingers are crossed that it’s minor and heals quickly.

I guess that’s one way to force rest during taper week!

I’m planning on taking it day by day and staying positive.

Assuming the ankle is good, will my less-is-more approach be successful on race day or should I have worked harder to “conquer” the workouts that I’ve struggled with in the past?

I suppose I will find out in a week, but in a way, it might not matter.

I have already succeeded in creating a way of training that works for me.  I feel better, faster, and happier.

And feeling better most of the time seems like a more holistic approach to both training and my life no matter what happens in the few hours of the race.

So maybe the difference this time is not so much about how I changed my training.

It’s about how it has changed me.

 

The Wind Strengthens the Tree Only After It Stops Blowing

I’ve just finished one of the heaviest training weeks I’ve had so far this marathon cycle:  just over 80 miles.  I’ve reached this barrier before while preparing for other marathons, so I’m not celebrating too much, but it’s time to take a step back.

Yes, instead of continuing to build the quality and quantity of my runs each and every week, I’m purposely cutting back for a week.

Research shows that intentionally dropping mileage for a week during the 10-12 week marathon specific period not only does not hurt your progress, but it leads to growth.

It seems so counterintuitive to build, step back, build, step back.  Our minds want progress to be linear.  We should simply build and grow in a nice smooth arching line upwards.

The logical way to build endurance should be like building a house out of Legos.  You start with the foundation, add some walls, then a roof, and you’re done.  One step after another.  Relentless forward progress until the house is built.

But that’s not how growth in living things work.

We are more like a tree in a windstorm.  As our tree sways back and forth in the wind of hard training, intense cellular damage is taking place in the trunk and in the branches.  The tree is being pushed farther than it is used to going so it stretches and bends and tears a little.

After the storm passes and the winds become calm, the tree repairs itself, builds stronger cell walls, and becomes even more resilient to withstand the next storm.

Yet, if the wind is unrelenting, blowing day in and day out, the tree has no chance to repair the damage and get stronger.

It will break.

So tomorrow I’ll skip my run and rest.  I don’t feel especially tired or worn out, but my long run today was not the quality run it should have been.

Missing splits is often a sign that you need to rest, instead of continuing to push and train harder.

How much should you drop down for an easy week?  Well, that’s a bit subjective.  Many experienced athletes many only need 10-20%, while those venturing into new territory of distance and/or intensity should probably aim closer to 30%.

I’m planning for about 20%.  Maybe I’ll take a bit more than that if I need it.

I admit that dropping that much when I know I can handle another 80 mile week hurts my ego a little.  It plays on my fears that I’m not doing absolutely everything I can to get better.

But ironically, there is a freedom in restraint.  I know that resting and cutting back on mileage is a training strategy for improvement, not a sign that I’m not fit enough or not working hard enough.

I’m simply taking some time to prepare for a hurricane.

Can I Start Marathon Training Yet?

After taking the spring off of racing marathons, I am so ready to get back to it.

I feel like I’ve been wearing someone else’s wardrobe for the past few months by racing 5 and 10Ks and nothing ever fit right.  I just want to put my jeans and t-shirt back on and get back to my passion.

So I have chosen my fall race, the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon on October 1.

The course is a lovely, point-to-point race along Lake Michigan.  With only a couple hundred feet of elevation drop over the entire course, it is about as flat as you can get.

Here’s the course profile for the first half:

Course elevation profiles always look a little more dramatic than they actually are.  The little rises and falls will feel almost imperceptible over this distance.

And the last 5K has a nice little descent which will be welcome at that point!

Besides the favorable course and the likelihood of good racing weather, the other reason for choosing Milwaukee is because I went to college there at Marquette University.  It’s always nice to go back and visit and hopefully catch up with some of my dearest friends from back in the day.

My sister also lives in Wisconsin, so hopefully she’ll be able to come out and be ready with a steaming bag of french fries for me at the finish line!

Milwaukee is a beautiful, fun city and while I didn’t run in college, I’m really looking forward to running there this fall.

Besides the race itself, I am mainly looking forward to getting back into the long grind of marathon training.  I know that sounds crazy to anyone who doesn’t run them, but I like the sense of accomplishment I feel when I train for a marathon.  I haven’t really fallen in love with the shorter races as I had hoped, and I have been a bit disappointed that I haven’t seen my times improve this spring.

Well, actually, I’m not sure if that’s true or not.  My racing times certainly haven’t improved, but there have been a few bright spots in workouts that have given me hope.

Nothing dramatic or clear cut, but a few track laps here and there that I know that I wouldn’t have been able to hit a year ago.

Little moments that show me that I’ve got it in me, I just need to coax it out at times.

For now, I’ve got one last 5K to race tomorrow and that’s the Downhill at Dusk 5K that I raced last year.  (Just rereading my race report is making me wonder why I’m doing this to myself again.)  It’s a very steep downhill the first mile, cruising to flat the second, with a nasty little crest at the end.

I’ve got no goal this year, except just to race it hard with an open mind and see what happens.

Because as soon as I cross that finish line, marathon training begins.

 

Charleston Marathon 2017 Race Report. New PR!

I feel so good about this one.

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.

Does every racer lay out their clothes the night before?

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.

At the start of the 2017 Charleston Marathon

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.

Mile one

 

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.

Miles 6-10: 6:59, 6:58, 7:06, 6:59, 6:57. 10K split: 43:08 (6:57 pace)

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 was now in third.

Miles 16-20:  7:05, 7:07, 7:04, 7:10, 7:00. 20 mile split:  2:20:31 (7:01 pace).

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.

Miles 21-26.2:  7:26, 7:16, 7:22, 7:27, 7:34, 7:44, 6:45 (last 0.2). Finish: 3:06:57 (7:07 pace).

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.

At the finish with my friend David.

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!

Sharing the podium with elite Esther Atkins

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Through Taper Week Without Tantrums

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.

If you are data-driven and need some actual numbers, Runners Connect recommends that you eat 3-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight during taper.

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.

Fresh loaves of whole wheat sourdough

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.

Not feeling great happens to a lot of us because it take 10-12 days to fully recover from hard workouts, which means you are not going to suddenly feel fresh and peppy.

If you do get sick, here are some great tips from elite marathoner and my colleague, Tina Muir.

Should I schedule a massage?

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.

I love this article that has an assessment about whether or not you are ready for your goal pace.

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.

With any luck, it will be my best race yet.

“Over It” Might Really Mean “Overtrained”

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

I am losing my enthusiasm.

After feeling so well prepared and ready for a big success in Richmond and then not getting there, it’s been a challenge trying to stoke the fire again.

I have gained so much fitness this year that I wanted to get back on the horse and try again.    With eight additional weeks of training, the Charleston Marathon seemed like a good choice to learn from my mistakes in Richmond and get just a little bit stronger.

Yet part of me just feels over it.  I thought I would be done training this hard by now.

In some ways, I am glad the DNF happened. What I am able to see now is that I was clinging on to my sub-three-hour goal so fiercely that it became like a wet bar of soap: the tighter I held on to it, the more easily it slipped away.

Afterwards, I rested and recovered and scaled back for a couple weeks.  Then I chose Charleston and put my nose back to the grindstone.  I quickly got back up to 70-85 miles a week and began watching my food intake carefully again.  Not too much, not too little, but just enough to get a little leaner and and a little faster.

Then I bombed a key marathon workout, the 2 x 6 miles.  Blowing one workout is no big deal, but this was a complete mental and partially physical unwillingness to come anywhere near the paces I normally do not struggle with.

But I let it go and kept up with my schedule as usual.  The next workout was fine.

A week later, what should have been an easy workout in the middle of my pace range felt like a struggle.  I hit my paces, but for some reason the slower-than-marathon-pace run felt unusually hard.  What was going on?

But then the next workout was great.  And then I had a really fantastic fast-finish long run.  Just what I needed for my confidence!  All better, right?

And hey, I’m almost at 3000 miles for the year of 2016!  If I run around ten miles a day for the month of December, I could do it.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Then came another bad workout.  This time on a cut-down run where each mile gets progressively faster.  These runs are always hard, but back in October, I had run a cut-down beautifully.  Textbook perfect and faster than I ever thought possible.  But last week, I could barely get below marathon pace without feeling defeated.  I ended the workout early.

I was yo-yoing from good to bad to mediocre and back again.

I needed some advice.  Marathon training is supposed to be hard and exhausting, but I was starting to get to the point of not really caring anymore.

I brought my concerns to my coach at Runners Connect.  Being a coach myself, it’s all too easy to try to be my own coach.  But that’s a lot like being your own lawyer.  When you coach yourself you have a fool for an athlete.

 “You’re running too much,” warned Coach Danny.   “More isn’t always better, especially with volume. Even though you aren’t tired physically, you are mentally, and I think that’s more of a sign of overtraining.”

Ideally, I should be concentrating more on nailing the workouts with fresher legs and scaling back on the easy miles in between.

In other words, my 10 mile super slow easy days that I thought were doing me so much good are actually sabotaging me.

The other thing Coach asked me to do is review my training.  “Look back at logs and find a string of weeks that you really nailed every workout and felt you broke through a plateau, or things were effortless,” he said.  “That’s the ‘sweet spot’ of your volume vs. intensity and you never want to get too far from it.”

Unfortunately, there was no clear correlation between big volume and bad performances.  I had some of my best workouts during some of my highest mileage.

Even so, I think the cumulative mileage is starting to show up in my workouts.  It seems that overtraining is a sneaky affliction because I don’t feel tired in the rest of my life.  My muscles are not sore.  My appetite and weight have been stable.  I’m not getting sick.

I’m just mentally tired.

I’m losing my enthusiasm.

So I’m scaling back.  I will not run today. I will not run any more 10 mile easy days before Charleston.  I will shift my focus away from mileage and concentrate on “training density,” which is making the workout days really count.

I will not get 3000 miles this year and that is just fine.

I will not aim for a sub-three-hour marathon in Charleston. (That was hard to type, so I’m going to type it again to make sure it sticks.)

I will not aim for a sub-three-hour marathon in Charleston.

It is still a goal of mine to cross the finish line under three hours.  I will do it someday but not this time.

After a year of great running without a great marathon, I just need to focus on finishing one well again, no matter what the time on the clock says.

I need to take a smaller bite out of the elephant instead of trying to eat it all at once.

I plan to pace myself slower than Richmond and hope to cross the finish line between 3:05 and 3:10. This is a conservative goal for me, but it would still be the fastest I’ve ever run that distance, so I’m going to prepare myself for it to hurt more than I ever have before.

And if I fail again, I will learn again.   And, eventually, after a nice long break, I will try again.

With enthusiasm.

The Rain is Coming

The Southern Appalachians are on fire.  Extreme drought combined with carelessness and arson have set the mountains ablaze leaving the valleys choked with smoke.

When the wind shifts, the grey haze clears and blue skies return.  When it shifts again, the smell of wood smoke clings to our clothes and the ashy air fills our lungs.

Needless to say, this has not been a good month for running.

When I left for my long run yesterday, the skies were blue and the air smelled fresh.  I am back on marathon training again and this was my first 20 miler in many weeks.

The schedule called for 12 miles easy, 6 miles fast, and 2 miles of easy cool down.  I had hoped to run a couple laps around Lake Summit, a pretty 9-mile loop in the county south of us, but by the time I drove down there, the blue sky had turned to haze.

I turned around and headed back to Asheville.

The first easy miles were quite nice.  I jogged through the city listening to NPR podcasts in the sunshine.  I could feel the steady 10 mile run from the day before in my legs a little, but that was the point.  I was supposed to run on tired legs to simulate the conditions of a marathon without actually running 26.2 miles all at once.

When I dropped down to the river and ran towards the park, it was like hitting a wall of smoke.   Ugh, I thought.

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Maybe I should just go to the treadmill and finish this, I thought.  But I was on mile 11.5 and I was over 2 miles from home, a mile of it straight uphill.

I really don’t want to run on the treadmill and mess up the run.  I’ll just see how it goes.

It was not a great idea.

The plan called for those fast six miles to be 10-15 seconds faster than marathon pace or 6:35 pace.  And that’s AFTER running 12 miles on tired legs.  When I read that, I smiled and knew I wasn’t even going to attempt that.

Because of my recent fast finish in the half marathon, my assigned paces in my workouts have gotten much faster.  The only problem with that is that longer distances are my strength.  My maximum speed probably hasn’t increased that much; I can just keep it up longer.

So trying to run half marathon pace on tired legs at mile 12 isn’t going to happen and I wasn’t going to try it.  But maybe marathon pace (6:50-55) wouldn’t be too bad.

I decided I was just going to do the best I could.

The first mile was slow (6:57) and the second was even slower (7:04).  I was breathing much harder than normal for that pace and every breath forced the smoky air deeper into my lungs.  My legs were starting to feel sore and heavy.

Okay, this is dumb, I thought.  I’ll just do one more fast mile and run the rest easy.

But then the third mile came in at 6:43.  The tension I was feeling about the run and the smoke and my legs hurting simply evaporated when I saw that number.  A visceral wave of pain relief seem to flow over me and for just a moment all my discomfort vanished.

Just three more fast miles.  Finish it.

I turned the corner both literally and figuratively and my resolve strengthened.  As hard as it was to breathe and run each stride, I was not going to quit.  Not this time.

The final three miles came in right on pace:  6:55, 6:52, 6:49.

It was not fun.  It did not feel good at the time.  I don’t recommend running through wildfire smoke.

But I got through it.

This run is like adding another arrow to my quiver.  When it is time to slay the marathon beast, I can pull this one out from my memory and use it to keep fighting.

The forecast calls for the rain to start tonight.  So much rain, in fact, that there is a good chance of flooding.

Hopefully, it will be enough to extinguish the wildfires and wash the air clean.

I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to run in the rain.