Tenth marathon; hardest in a long while
On November 3, I ran the Two Cities Marathon, in Fresno/Clovis, California. In short, this was the slowest race time I’ve had since 2009, when I ran The Rocket City Marathon in 5:33. While one might see this race as a regression in performance or ability given that I’ve not finished a marathon in slower than 3:40 since January of 2011, I choose to see it in a different light. This one: 4:04.
Over the past year, I’ve moved to doing more ultra and trail-based events, the most recent a 50K in June. So when summer arrived, I was looking to experiment with different marathon training plans. Why not spend more time on the trails during the beautiful summer months, you ask? Snakes and ticks. I’m terrified of them. So when the snakes and ticks come out, I leave the trails and get back on the roads. I’d rather deal with bears in the winter than snakes in the summer.
The Hanson Method
I’d been intrigued with the Hanson marathon method since seeing Desi Davila almost win Boston under the Hanson team banner. The Hansons approach marathon training in an unorthodox way, eschewing the staple long run of 18–24 miles for a shorter long run distance of 16 miles. They argue that conventional marathon plans lend too much attention to the long run at the expense of mid-week intensity. They argue that total weekly volume is more important that the long run, and that their plan prepares a runner to run on tired legs , with six running days a week, and only one rest day. There are no step back or recovery weeks. You train your butt off, literally, then get a 10 day taper of easy runs leading up to your race.
The central idea of the plan is that anyone can race the first 16 miles of a marathon. It’s the last 10 you have to train for. By running most everyday and running on fatigued legs, the runner can adapt the body to late race stress and fatigue. This is a radical departure from my normal training schedule. Typically, I run 5 days a week, with a day for hills, a day for tempo/intervals, a long run day with long runs from 18-24 miles through the cycle. I’ll add a double run on Wednesday tempo days, as well.
To be sure, this is a sound marathon training plan. And the research they’ve done on supports their assertions. Not to mention the sheer volume of runners who swear by it means that this is no crackpot marathon plan. The prospect of experimentation with a new approach was attractive to me given that summers in Alabama are brutal, and I wanted to change things up for the summer. (For more details about the plan, go her. Or buy the book. There’s some good info not only about their plan but running physiology in general. It’s a good read even if you don’t use the plan)
Adjusting for Alabama Summers
Two things you have to do if you train in the summer heat: adjust paces and monitor your heart rate. I know what my HR should be in ideal conditions when running at marathon goal pace (7:37). So I take that info and run by HR instead of pace. To do otherwise leads to a dangerous situation and a longer recovery period after tough runs. Given that the Hanson plan uses fatigue as a central training tool, I had to factor heat and humidity into the fatigue the plan would give me. Stacking summer-based fatigue on top of training plan fatigue would lead to bad things.
The newness and the everyday running aspect of the plan seemed fun to try. What did I have to lose? Not a thing. Knowledge is power and the best way to learn about myself as a runner is to explore and experiment. I was intrigued and a bit excited about the prospect of only running 16 miles for long runs, since the summer heat and humidity would last well into September. My thinking was that I SHOULD feel stronger on shorter runs, and come out of the cycle fatigued, but stronger overall.
Felt like a Job
Running 6 days a week (with 6 weeks of double runs thrown into the mix) wore me down. At first I could withstand the grind, knowing that this would make me stronger and faster. But after a while the lack of recovery days, cross-training, and step-back weeks made running seem like a chore. I dreaded some runs, many runs, and forced myself out the door for what seemed another difficult summer run in oppressive conditions. There was no joy in Gordonville.
Keep it together, man!
I kept telling myself that this WAS the nature of the plan. Learn to push through fatigue. learn to focus when tired. I’m a pre-dawn runner, so getting out of bed at 4:15 AM became increasingly difficult as this plan stretched into the weeks and weeks. Then I started hurting. I ran so many miles on the track on Tuesdays that my right hip starting wigging out from the torque of being the outside leg. I developed a mild case of PF. My hamstring started bugging me on the long hilly tempo runs at 4:45 in the morning. I felt like the walking dead at times. But I kept saying: “keep it together, man. THIS is the plan. People swear by it. They kill their races with it.”
If you’ve trained for a race, there comes a point in the training cycle where you begin to get a sense of what you are capable of doing on race day. Not once did I have any idea at all what I was able to do. All I could tell those who asked was this race could be very good or very bad. No clue whatsoever as to my marathon fitness, my level of preparedness. At once this made me nervous and calm. I trusted the plan, I worked hard. I told myself this could be liberating. I could run free of expectations. Perhaps THAT was the secret to breaking through to BQ. Maybe in the past I had loaded my mind with so many expectations and pressure that I was unable to just run. Could this be the missing link? Or could I be fooling myself?
Funny thing is, on my 2 mile warmup before the race, I felt super. I had given myself a few extra days to taper (Hansons gives only a 10 day taper, where you’re still running 49 miles over that period). My goal for the race was to negative split. I have never negative split a marathon. I always go out too fast. Or I try to hold an even split, which I have realized is not possible for me, or anyone else not an elite runner. I wanted to run at an 8 minute/mile pace through mile 13-15, then see what I had in me, with the goal being sub-marathon goal pace of 7:37. This number–7:37–has been my white whale, if you will. My BQ pace, my goal pace. I’ve trained for that pace and strived for that pace, yet I have not yet subdued the great beast. Capt. Ahab would not capture his whale today.
I felt pretty good through mile 13, when my breathing became labored. Surprising, this level of stress had arrived MUCH too early. I checked my heart rate and found it at late marathon levels. I was already fatigued and my HR showed that I was in trouble. The 3:35 pace group started to get distance on me. The wind picked up and I fell behind. By mile 16 I was in trouble. My feet were hurting. And it all clicked. The lack of anything longer than 16 mile runs had left me unprepared for anything longer than 16 miles. Hurting feet is one of the classic signs of being under-prepared. My quads started to tire, my hips got wiggy, my Achilles became tender. in a bizarre realization, I had run too much, yet not far enough. I was falling apart.
The next 10 miles reminded me of my first marathon. Fatigue, pain, anger, sadness, confusion. I replayed the last 6 months in my mind. Had I not worked hard enough? Yes I had. Did I not taper long enough? I added days to it, so that couldn’t be it. Then I realized that the Hanson plan wasn’t the plan for my physiological needs. I’m 46 now. I need rest and recovery. My body needs time to adapt to hard workouts. I need cross-training for recovery. My mind needs the recovery, too. The plan had become a grind to me, body and mind. Giving me small nagging pains. My joy, the thing that drives me out of bed and out the door each morning, left me during this cycle.
There were moments where I fell into despair. I was better than this, I said. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and look around you. People along the course are there to volunteer for you. People running with you are running their first races. Marathons are big freaking deals and you are running and you will finish. Smile at the volunteers. Thank them. Smile at the crazy woman with the cowbell and the funny hat who ran beside you cheering you on. She got out of bed on a cold morning and is there to cheer for you. You smile. You run.
On a side note, let me praise this race, the organizers, the volunteers. The swag. Medium sized marathoning done right. Great local support, solid expo. Super loot: race shirt, cool medal, finisher’s hoodie, AND a running hat! The Fresno-Clovis folks have a great course and a race anyone would enjoy signing up for and racing.
I got to the last mile and got emotional. Pain. Relief. Pride. As hard as this day had been, I still was finishing my tenth marathon. The moment was not lost on me. TEN. Double digits. This formerly obese, stroke-ready guy has finished ten marathons. I teared up for the first time in a race since my first at Disney in 2009. No matter how slow or hard this race had been, I finished. I saw it through to the end. For a basically lazy guy who runs from his blerch, I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done for myself since I ran that first painful quarter-mile in January 2007.
There was a time, a couple of years ago, where I would have seen this race as a complete failure. I placed tremendous pressure and high stakes on each race. No BQ? Then you are a failure, Gordon. I’ve learned that I must take, as I tell my friends to, the long view. This is a lifetime thing for me. I want to run forever. I realize now that racing marathons–racing not running–is not a linear process. You don’t set a PR in each successive race (as I had done when I was working from my 6 hour marathons and into the three hour times). Each race is an island unto itself, yet it is affected by past performance and quality of training. Marathoning is a long and winding road with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, tears and joy. So, I’m not bummed about this result. This is life. This is what I signed up for when I took those first steps in 2007. I got a medal. I got my tenth finish. I got to see a pretty part of the country. I enjoyed life.
Two years ago, a result like this would’ve sent me into a tailspin of low confidence and doubt. I’ve grown since then. I’ve matured as a runner. I see things in a much different way than I did in 2011. I run. Good or bad, I run. Hard or easy, I run. I run. And it’s not always easy. Some runs suck. Some make me feel like Geoffrey Mutai. But I’m privileged and fortunate to be a runner.
Trails. Ultramarathons. I’ve registered for 50Ks in January and February and am contemplating a 50-miler in March. There will be a few shorter races, too. I’ll also begin creating my training method. I’m going back to three years ago when I felt strong and confident about my training. I’m going to spend the rest of this year crafting my plan, the one that works for me. It includes cross training, lots of marathon pace miles, long runs of up to 24 miles, and rest and recovery.
I am Sisyphus
I wrote the following passage on a post early last week. So I’ll close with it today. It describes what I am as a runner and what I want to be:
In many ways marathoning is the modern version of Sisyphus and the stone. We try and try and train and train, and we hope that one day that stone stays at the top of the hill, but deep down, we know it won’t…perhaps we wish it won’t. For the journey is what makes me tick. The never-ending quest for improvement, for a little more speed, a touch more stamina, a bigger smile at the finish line no matter how hard the race. There are days where I wish I didn’t have the stone, where I wish I could be lazy. But I need that stone. I love the stone. And I plan to push it up the hill for the rest of my life. For what is Sisyphus without his stone? Just an ordinary man, not myth or legend, or figure to cheer or pity. With his stone, his burden, his mission, he is the stuff of legend. I am Sisyphus.
Thanks for sharing, and congrats on the finish! I turned 46 this weekend and ran my first, self supported, marathon. I’ve listened to people like you and Megan and Dirt Dawg long enough and thought I would break through the 26.2 barrier. With your drive and dedication I know you’ll eventually BQ…I hope to do so, too, in a couple of years!
Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your words!
More people should have your perspective on life and running. Well done on your tenth marathon finish and a great reflective article
Great job. I appreciate your mature insight into the life of a real life runner. Your story is as inspirational as always. I have followed you for a long time and I appreciate you honest real world perspective. Good job on 10 marathons and good luck on your next 10.
Thank you, Jason