While my training and racing since Boston/Big Sur has been full of ups and downs, my primary complaint is that I feel like I'm on a plateau. After all, a roller coaster is much more exciting than one of the kiddie rides that does slow elliptical loops on a flat track, right?
Since I last wrote a race report - regarding the pleasant surprise of a 19:02 5K in early August - I've had two more race experiences. The first was an abominable half-marathon on Labor Day weekend, where I set out to see if I could hold 6:40 pace, learned after about 4.5 miles that I could not, went into a dark mental place, and ran an embarrassing 1:34+. The second was the always-fun Reach the Beach Relay, where I ran about 22 miles in three legs at an average pace of 7:06/mile, including 1500 feet of elevation gain. The hips did not particularly relish the uphill segments at race pace, but it was nonetheless an unqualified success (which carried clear training benefits). Apart from those two races, I've had good runs and bad runs, workouts I've nailed, and those on which I've bailed (I'd go on, but the temptation to channel the late Johnnie Cochran is just too great).
My coach likes to use the word "sinusoidal" to describe these ups and downs. I had always viewed marathon training as a slow build which culminates in standing at a metaphorical cliff, looking down and then taking a few steps back for the 2-3 week taper which all distance runners seem to abhor. Since it hasn't felt that way this time around, I've turned to numbers for consolation that a new PR awaits me in Chicago. Even including the week I took off from running after the VT-100, since July 1st I've averaged about 63 miles per week before the taper. Since crossing the finish line in Chicago on October 12, 2008, I will have run about 4500 miles when I toe the line next week. My "easy" run pace is faster at a lower average heart rate then it was when I qualified for Boston in May 2009. Put simply, I'm in much better aerobic shape than I have ever been. The great unknown is whether my hips will hold up for 26.2 miles at "marathon pace", which naturally begs the question of what that pace is (or should be).
So, unlike prior to Boston, when I held my goal close to the vest, I'll proclaim the following: I will settle into a 7:10/mile pace as soon as I can at Chicago, with the goal of breaking 3:10. When I went through the customary process of agonizing about what the appropriate goal should be, basically torn between going for an aggressive PR or simply cautiously pacing towards a modest one, my coach helped me with the following sage advice, sent in response to my question about tempering optimism with realism when it comes to setting a goal time:
Tempering optimism is never useful while modifying expectations is sometimes necessary, so you're looking at two different beasts. The problem here isn't your fitness being an unknown quantity, at least in regard to the broad range it needs to fall in for you to run "only" 3:10. The problem is not knowing if your body is going to cooperate that day. I don't see you going there and struggling to a 3:XX finish of any sort. I see you pacing off a nice 3:08ish marathon with "minimal" true difficulty or being knocked out of the box altogether with the hip thing. There's still enough time to determine whether it's more likely than not that the hips will acquiesce and this weekend [meaning Reach the Beach] will be a real test--one that, if "passed," will tip things very heavily in favor of being able to head to Chicago with relatively few concerns.If he'd done nothing more than offer me that missive at a critical training juncture, the money I've paid would have been well-spent. It is thus in that spirit that I proceed to Chicago, secure that 7:10/mile (aka, a 3:08:xx marathon) is not at all unreasonable, and the hips will either allow it or not.
So yes--think about the race as if you were healthy and looking to run a PR and that's it. You have no control over what the hips offer or don't on race day and it's not in your head. You don't need the usual psych pep talk to talk you out of self-doubt; you know the score and just need a favorable day. SO even if you consider yourself neurotic at baseline, this is really a separate issue.
So, with a goal in place, I've tried not to get too obsessed with the usual race-related details: shoes, apparel, nutrition, weather, travel issues, weekend plans, etc. I've had mixed success with that. ;-)
With 4 very busy days between now and my 6:00 am Friday flight to Chicago, I am looking forward to a highly memorable race weekend, involving time with very good friends (old and new) and a slightly-more-than-3-hour jaunt through the streets of one of the world's great cities.
Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron