Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ups & Downs of Marathon Training

Coming off of last week's half-marathon, I've been thinking about ups & downs, at first in terms of hills, but in a more symbolic context, as well. I live in a hilly area, and my next marathon is at a ski resort, for crying out loud. Of course, as every dedicated runner realizes sooner or later, running can become a multi-faceted metaphor for life.

For a variety of reasons, I tend to shy away from getting into the details of my non-running personal life on here (yes, I do have one), so suffice it say that last weekend sucked. Like virtually everybody, I have a few especially stressful things going on in my life right now, including an ailing father who's in the hospital for the third time this year. Two of my three kids had a bout of stomach flu last week. On Saturday morning, my wife and I made an ER visit with one of the kids (everything's okay now, but we'll need some future help).

I had planned to run 5 recovery miles on the trails on Saturday, which I did when we got back from the hospital. It was cold and raw, and as much as it was great to be back in the woods, my heart wasn't in it.

Easter Sunday started inauspiciously, with my two youngest kids acting like spoiled, insufferable brats, demanding candy, wanting to skip church (which means a lot to my Christian wife) and otherwise being disagreeable about everything from eating breakfast to getting dressed. Yes, this is likely the result of some parenting deficiencies, but that realization did make managing the morning any easier. I offered to stay home with them so my wife and oldest daughter could go to church in peace, but my wife said she would deal with the little ones, that she would not miss church on Easter and that she didn't want me missing the whole second half of the day to do a 3-hour run. So, I tried to get into the the right frame of mind for my scheduled 22-miler, of which I was planning to do the final 5 miles at goal marathon pace (GMP). It turned out to be one of the worst training runs ever.

Now, I hate making excuses, but part of the process of improving as a runner is to identify and attempt to correct the things that compromise optimal performance. Ideally, one does that during training so as to get it "right" on race day. Here's the short list of what I believe conspired against me, roughly in order of importance:

  • Stress
  • Sustained winds of 25+ mph
  • Passover curbing my carb intake; under-fueling in general
  • Under-hydrating
  • Insufficient sleep, even by my usual "6-hours-is-plenty" standard
  • Not fully recovered from/still adapting to recent training stressors (specifically back-to-back 60+-mile weeks ending with a tough half-marathon PR race)

Also, trying to approximate what I'll face at Sugarloaf, here's the elevation profile of the course I plotted for myself:

It was 36 degrees when I went out at around 9:00 a.m., and I took it easy. The wind was tough, but not debilitating, for the first 4-5 miles. Then it smacked me in the face like a brick wall, and I was being blown on and off the shoulder and sidewalks regularly. I stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, take a gel and fill my water bottles, bracing myself for the climb from miles 7-10, which I purposely plotted since that's where the big climb is on the Sugarloaf course. The highlight of the run was that I took those miles smoothly, averaging around 9:30/mile, or about a minute slower than I should take miles 8-10 on race day. I got to the top and went down the other side, a steep descent into the wind, followed by a killer 3-mile climb straight into the worst winds of the day. Miles 12-15 gain about 400 feet, and with the wind in my face, I was physically spent and mentally out of it. I lost my focus, and I spent the next hour ambling towards home, just wishing it was over. My hips felt tight, so I stopped to stretch (more than once). I was dehydrated, rationing my remaining 4 ounces of Gatorade Endurance and 4 ounces of water, until I came to a little private school on a country road where I filled up on their outdoor faucet. Slightly reinvigorated and no longer freaking out about running out of fluids, I was able to get myself down to around 8:30 per mile, but it was still a slog. Overall pace was about 9:00 for the run. Nothing about that was "easy". Total mileage for the week (a cutback week) was a little over 55.

Some 3 hours-plus after setting out, I was back home, trying to stretch out the doubts which had managed to creep into my psyche as the result of one poor training run. While successful marathon training has a lot to do with physical and mental toughness, my psyche - at least as far as the full marathon distance is concerned - remains rather fragile. Three disappointing performances, coming off of months of hard work and personal sacrifice, have a tendency to do that.

One reason I've delayed in completing this post is because this week's training schedule has been a work in progress. At this point, it looks like this:

  • M - XT as usual; a little extra core work
  • Tu - 11M total, with some drills and 10x200m hill repeats at 5K pace/effort, done with the running club; slowest repeat was at 6:24 pace; fastest at 5:39 pace; first one was 6:18; final one was 5:42
  • W - 8 miles easy, perhaps with a "moderate" finish
  • Th - 10 miles easy
  • F - 8 mile progression run, starting with 2 miles at 9:00/mile, dropping 30 seconds per mile every 2 mile, until last 2 miles are at goal marathon pace
  • Sa - 6 miles very easy, probably in the woods
  • Su - 20 miles, with 5 miles easy, 4x2 miles at goal marathon pace (4-5 minutes easy in between sets) and 5 miles easy

That would come out to about 63 miles, and hopefully serve a couple of purposes. One is to start "dialing in" my goal race pace of 7:30/mile. Another is to work hard without overtaxing myself, so that I may do my first-ever 70-mile week next week. I've decided that the way I feel at the end of the 70-mile week will determine whether I do a 2-week taper (as planned this time) or a 3-week taper (as I have done before).

In addition to the need to peak at the right time, I need to stay healthy and have confidence that my goal is attainable. Of course, good weather would be a bonus. I'd love to start a marathon worried about being cold, perhaps even having a layer which I could shed after a couple of miles. Two of my last 3 half-marathons have started with temps in the high-20's/low 30's, and those runs have gone very well for me. If the temps in Maine on May 17th start out in the 40's, I'll be very happy and confident about experiencing a marathon where it all finally comes together for me. In a little over 4 weeks, I'll know.



Mir said...

Sorry about all the family stress! I hope your father is doing all right. At least you were able to get that run in, yucky or not. This will be the one!

screaminzab said...

Hey ESG. Hang in there. Your big day is coming soon, although probably not soon enough after that weekend. Sometimes it takes a weekend like that to appreciate those other weekends where 20 miles feels like a walk in the park and the kids behave like angels.