I’ve been calling what I’m doing “The Great Experiment.” I wanted to try something new, something based on how I felt a few weeks after Boston, and then again a few weeks after Marine Corps. How did I feel? Strong and fit; vibrant, almost, when it came to my fitness.
As I’ve thought about that, it made a certain amount of sense. If you look at marathon training plans, especially for beginners, they take you through a series of steps. You take your long run on the weekend, and the week after you push yourself to a new distance, you scale back a little. For example, you might run 14 miles one week, then drop back to 12, then up to 16, then back to 14. A lot of training plans have your longest training run three weeks before the marathon, giving you 21 days to recover for the race. And so, a plan was hatched. What if I ran a marathon three weeks after Chicago?
The closest marathon to my house is the Manchester Marathon, and it happens to be run exactly three weeks after Chicago. I ran the Manchester half a couple years ago, so I knew it was a very hilly course. Still, it was held at the right time, and the race fee was low, so a couple of months ago I decided to run it.
The week after Chicago, I only ran once; 4.2 miles on Friday. That Saturday I went for a 32 mile bike ride, so with almost three hours of aerobic exercise, I felt like I had put forth a good effort. The next week I ran on five occasions for a total of 27 miles, culminating with a ten mile run on Sunday, exactly one week before the marathon. Over the few days I ran twice for 7 miles total, and settled in for the marathon on Sunday. That was the plan… get about 45 or 50 miles in between the two marathons, and see what happened. Saturday we ran errands all day, including a brief stop to pick up my number.
Marathon morning dawned gray and drizzly, but as a bonus, with an extra hour of sleep thanks to daylight savings time. I hadn’t really gotten ready for the race the night before, so when it was time to go, it was weird as I tried to find my favorite hat (fail), my heart rate monitor (also fail), and the running belts I wear to run long distances (success). I hadn’t even settled on what I was wearing the night before, let alone laid out my gear. I’ll chalk this down as mistake number one. As a consequence, I have no heart rate data for this race, and I would have liked to have that information to compare to other marathons. Not great, but hey, it’s an experiment… why not add a few more variables?
Added to the variables was how quickly I would reach the starting line. Previously, I’ve been ready with the crowd at least an hour before race time, but it didn’t seem that important with it being so close to home, so we drove in a little later. We got there in plenty of time. The temperatures were hovering in the mid 40s, and we decided that rather than having me go stand in line for a port-o-jon before the start, we’d find a bathroom. We drove a short way, and this is where my second mistake took hold. Through a series of unfortunate events, which included what must have been a dead guy locked in the only stall at the McDonald’s we stopped at, this took way too much time. “I’m gonna be late,” I said to C. She assured me she’d get me there on time. And then the traffic gods said otherwise, and the race started, and we were still driving.
It’s a funny thing to get out of the car about a quarter mile from the start of a race, knowing that the gun had already gone off. Between the half marathon, the relay, and the marathon, there were fewer than 700 runners, so it didn’t take them more than a minute or two to get across the start. I probably jumped out of the car at 8:51 (the race started at 8:50), but as I approached Elm Street, with both running belts wrapped around my chest in a cross like ammunition belts, a cop was laughing at me, and said, “they’re already gone, man!” I told him, “I know, I’ll catch up!” I rounded the corner, and sure enough, there were no runners left. I ran towards the start where a technician was about to tear down the timing mat at the start of the race. “One more runner, hang on!” I called out. He stepped back, I ran by, and headed for the first turn.
The policeman working that first intersection wasn’t expecting any more runners, and when I got there, I still couldn’t see anybody else, so I had to yell a couple times to get his attention. “Which way does the race go?” He pointed west, and off I went. At the next intersection, the same thing happened. I collected my directions and tore off again. Finally, after nearly a mile, I caught up with the back of the pack. Here they are in front of me as I started to catch up. As you can tell, I’m at least laughing at myself…
Once I was among people, I tried to settle down. When my watch beeped at the end of my first mile, I saw that I had just clocked a sub 9 minute mile. NOT good. In fact, a lot faster than I had planned on. And if you’ve read my marathon posts before, you know that going out to fast has had catastrophic results for me. Mistake number 3???
My goals for Manchester were pretty limited. I wanted to have a good race, but what was that? Having just run a 4:35 in Chicago (very flat), I knew there was the potential for me to not be fully recovered, which would slow me down. I also knew that Manchester was very hilly, and expected that to slow me down, too. I hadn’t done any speed work in the last four weeks, so there was no reason to expect to be fast. I wore a 4:45 pace tattoo, and while I knew I was still hoping for a 4:30, had no realistic expectations of hitting that. Still, a 4:30 marathon is 10:18 pace, and at the end of mile one, I was a minute and 25 seconds ahead of schedule.
Lacking a heart rate monitor, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to run by pulse. Knowing it was super hilly, I knew a steady pace was out, too. I decided to just try to slow down, and see what happened. The next four miles I managed to keep my average around 10:10, and then I stopped paying that much attention for a while. We passed through some beautiful trails, so it was easy to get distracted.
Miles 6 through 12 ended up being a little faster (9:40 per mile), and by the time I hit the half-way mark, I was sitting at roughly two minutes faster than 4:30 pace, and I was worried that I was going to crash and burn later because I was giving the race too much effort early. I’d been trying to eat, but wasn’t hungry. I had gone through a bag of Sport Beans and a couple of Hammer Gels, which is only 280 calories total. Also, there were a lot fewer water stops, and unlike Chicago, I was wasn’t getting sport drink at every station (each station only had a few people, and usually just one table – if you weren’t careful, you could miss them entirely). As I considered where I was at the half way point, I considered the following:
- Good: My muscles were not showing any signs of strain. By this point in Chicago, my quads were already letting me know they were going to be a problem.
- Bad: I was probably in a nutrition deficit of at least 300-400 calories. In Chicago, I was getting sport drink every mile, and I had eaten more, too.
- Good: I felt good as far as my cardiovascular system was concerned. No idea on my pulse, but breathing pretty well, and could carry on a conversation easily.
- Bad: That tightness over my hips was starting to protest. This, I figured, was where I was going to struggle.
So I made an effort to slow down, but just by a little bit. 10:10 per mile range. By mile 15, I was starting to have to work for it. Up to that point, the race had been fairly easy, but I knew the hurt was coming, and I started to negotiate with myself. I decided that I would deploy my power play music list at mile 16, and let that carry me the final 10.2 miles. Smooth and steady, let’s do this, James. I carried on, in that 10:10 range, started cranking the good tunes, but I was about to hit the wall.
I don’t know the wall real well. I think it’s because I’m a relatively slow marathoner. Plus, I take sport drink whenever I can. That means I’m bringing in fuel that I can use while my body goes through my glycogen reserves… but at around mile 19, I started to feel really sick. It was like being nauseous, but not in my stomach… in my muscles. There was an aid station at 19.3 miles, and instead of running through it like every other station, I stopped.
I pulled out a gel, and methodically consumed it. I took water. Finished the gel. Then I took some sport drink. And then another cup of sport drink. “I feel like hell,” I told the nice guy giving me PowerAde. He reminded me that it was a tough course. I told him I had a pretty good idea about that. He told me there would be some nice crowds near the baseball stadium, so that should give me a boost. I agreed, and took off.
I don’t remember running by a baseball stadium. I went back and looked at a map, and yup, ran right by it. Hell if I remember it, though!
What I do remember happened just past the 20 mile marker. There were about half a dozen adults standing in the front yard, cheering, listening to music, and looking like they were having a pretty good time. I noticed they had a table with drinks set up. Deciding more calories could help make this bonk feeling go away, I crossed the street… and found beer. They had several kinds of beer on the table, and a guy asked me, “what’ll you have?” Now don’t get me wrong, they had water, too. But Sam Adams Noble Pils has 161 calories in it, so I simply pointed, and he produced a church key, opened a bottle, and handed it to me.
I chugged that Sam in probably ten seconds flat. I’ve never done that before. I don’t know why it sounded like a good idea, but it did, and that’s what happened. I handed back the empty, bumped fists, gave my thanks, and took off running again. I had stood there so briefly that my watch data doesn’t show me stopping; it just shows my pace dipping briefly by a couple of minutes. With data-points every 30 seconds or so, the math supports a stop of between 10 and 15 seconds.
My 20th mile had beer sloshing in my belly, and maybe one or two burps, and it wasn’t fast, but that “my whole body is going to be sick” feeling just went away. And then I hit mile marker 21, and I was still in good shape for a 4:30 marathon, so I decided it was just time to settle in and get the work done.
There are lots of ways to channel motivation as an endurance athlete. One of my favorites is to remind myself that the only way the pain of the previous 21 miles was worth a damn is if I honored that effort and kept pushing for the final 5.2.
I talked to my Dad a lot those next few miles. I decided a wheelbarrow’s worth of effort was one song. I figured I had about 15 songs to go. “That’s a lot of wheelbarrows, Dad. How about we just commit to this one?” I ran the song to the end, and committed to running the next one down. Then the next. And the next.
And before long, I found myself running past the mile 25 marker. I checked my watch, and realized that I was going to pull this thing off, that I was going to hit my stretch goal, and even though I had climbed many hills that day, I was going to beat my personal best. The course twisted around, and then the steepest part of the course reared up in front of me. Ahhh! Stupid hill! Why now? Well… why not? We didn’t run 25.5 miles just to give in to this beast of a hill… so while others around me slowed to a walk, I kept running. And then I crested the hill, and with half a mile to go, I started to accelerate. When I turned the corner onto Elm Street and spotted the finish line, I accelerated some more. There were six runners between me and the finish line, and I made it my mission to pass as many of them as I could.
I got five of them… and a new personal best. 4:27:42, shaving 7:18 off my Chicago effort, in spite of 1,120 feet of climb (nearly a thousand feet more than Chicago!). In spite of being late, in spite of hitting the wall, in spite of everything, I just ran the best marathon of my life.
Things I learned at the Manchester Marathon:
- I like small crowds. I probably ran a quarter mile less distance than I do in big marathons because I wasn’t weaving through people the entire time.
- Show up on time. Because I had to run to the start, that quarter mile I saved? I used it up before the race even started.
- Get sport drink at every station. Period. It works for me.
- Three week gaps? Those work pretty well.
- All the hill work I do on a regular basis? That pays off. Huge. If you’re not looking for hills to run on, you need to start. It’s okay if you have to walk, but go find a hill, and work it. Make it yours.
- If someone offers you a beer, say yes.
- …two beers? Maybe not.
I’m done with marathons for 2015, and still trying to figure out what the plan is for 2016. I need to run New York, but now I know that a smaller marathon is a pretty good idea too. Maybe I’ll do it three weeks before.