Lessons from a Marathon Attempt

Intro

Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.  In my race a week ago Sunday, the bear got more of me than I did the bear, I think, but I did learn some things.

My plan for the day was to go out slow and then stay that way.  My only goal was to finish ahead of the “sweeper” vehicles.  The marathon cut-off time was 7 hours and I hoped to be in about 10 minutes before that.  Yeah, it was too close.  I nearly dropped back to the half because I knew I could do a half fast enough to be comfortable with the time – the cut-off was 4 hours and I had done several runs as long or longer than that. I knew it would be finished unless I hurt myself.

The full, though, has been a dream for years, ever since I did the first one back in 1990.  For several reasons, mostly health-related, that had been one of the last runs I did until 2011 and I thought I was ready.

Background

I weighed in at 289 pounds that morning. I’m 6’1″ tall and 64 years old.  I’ve been running in one sense my whole life but really began to seriously cover ground in May of 2011.  Most of that time I’ve walked as much as I’ve run, or more, but a year ago I started working toward the marathon and by May of last year was running, albeit slowly, up to 10 miles with only short walking breaks.  I live in the Arizona desert and expected very slow times and much reduced running over the summer, and that’s what I got.  I also started a new job and I’ve found in previous job changes that I gain weight and lose miles running but this time I didn’t do either.  However, I had hoped by the end of the summer to have lost another 20 pounds or more from the 300 I was then, so I was not entirely happy to have stayed level.  One of my plan’s expectations was to lose weight, so not losing it put the plan in difficulty.

The end of July, I hurt my Achilles tendon.  I suspect a little too much mileage and the latest shoes I had, which have a harder heel counter (that piece of reinforcement that helps form the curve at the back) than the previous version.  I lost 3 weeks of training to that just before I started going longer with my training partner.

Add to that a couple of other issues with a lost 17 miler, a shortened 20 miler (to 17), and 3 days down with a bug in December, and I came to the starting line with almost a thousand miles of running behind me but not as much distance or speed work as I had hoped.  I also was hauling way more weight than planned.

Gear

In terms of gear, two weeks before the race I was expecting a start at near 60 degrees (f) and a high of 72.  I therefore planned light clothes, with just shorts and a tee shirt (I get friction burns with a tank top).  A week before, the forecast had changed to starting in the low 40s with solid rain.  I scrambled for ideas about how to deal with that because, living in the desert, we don’t get much heavy rain.  As it turned out, the best I could do was either a trash bag (33 gal) with cut-out neck and shoulder openings or an old Maid of the Mist rain poncho from Niagara Falls for the top and then tights to help keep my legs warm.  I was really worried about blisters as I’m prone to them anyway. I had a pair of Drymax, which have a good reputation, but which aren’t as tight on my foot, a pair of SmartWool PhD socks, which should work well but which I had not run really long in, and a pair of Thorlos, which had done well in my last 20-miler.  I was still trying to decide when, at the last minute, the weather report gave the course a reprieve.  Low 50s, cloud cover but no rain and the temperatures were expected to climb no more than a few degrees.

I went with a pair of 2-in-1 shorts with a compression liner.  These are heavier than some of my other shorts but they are also a little longer and with the cooler temperature I wanted that.  I added a short-sleeved shirt that I’d worn in several races and knew to be easy on my nipples.  Over that, I wore a windbreaker that I could tie around my waist later and a pair of very light stretchy gloves with the finger tips for working my phone.

I changed my shoes from the Glycerin 14s that I had been training in (and which hurt my heel in August) to Hoka One One Clifton 3s.  I got the Cliftons in December and had run relatively few miles in them, but one of those runs was the 20-mile run 3 weeks before the race.  They are really comfortable and fit my feet well, so I went with comfort over break-in time.  I went with the Thorlo socks too as they have more padding. I’ll get back to that as a lesson learned.

I also had a Camelbak lumbar pack with 50 ounces of water, 8 packages of Jelly Belly Sport Beans, and a few other odds and ends.  The Camelbak has been my constant companion on long runs for almost the entire time I’ve been back running.  It sits low on my spine so it doesn’t get hot like a backpack model but it has the hose so I can take frequent sips. I debated not using it but I wasn’t sure about the beans without having water to wash them down.

The sport beans work pretty well for me compared to GU.  I don’t mind GU except for its packaging (I always get sticky) and the way it’s sometimes too much to get down all at once.  The beans, by contrast, come in a resealable bag so you can get out three and eat those over a quarter mile and keep the rest for the next mile.  A bag will get me about 4-5 miles down the road and usually keeps me moving right along.

Race day

RnR AZ Start

RnR AZ Start

I got to the start with plenty of time to get to check-in, hit the porta-johns, and line up.  In addition to this being the first marathon in a long time for me, it was also the first long race that I’d run without a partner.  I had my MapMyRun app on my phone set to give me quarter mile intervals but I hoped to find someone to keep close to during the race, going just ahead of the cut-off.  I had calculated that I needed to stay just under 15:50 pace average to beat that time, so that’s what I was looking for.  I found a couple people who were talking that they were planning to do that so I decided to latch on to them.

Now the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon start is normally in stages and you line up in an assigned “corral”.  The corrals are released one at a time, 1-2 minutes apart, and since I was in the last I expected to have 6 stages gone before we lined up and heard the air horn.  I should mention that it doesn’t matter when you actually go across the start line because a tag on your shoe starts your individual time.  Other places along the course track your time at checkpoints, which give you the intermediate times and confirms that you didn’t miss part of the course (that is, cheat).  So it doesn’t matter whether you line up at the front or 2,300 runners back, your own time will be accurate.  The only thing is that the clocks on the course are, of course, all set to the first corral, so your time will actually be faster than what’s on the clock.  If the mile says it’s 20:00 and you didn’t start for 5 minutes, your pace is 15 minutes a mile.

The race provides pacers for different times, as do many races these days, but the last one was a five hour and 30 minute target.  For someone going slower that that, you’re on your own.   I suspect that those tail-enders might need a pacer at least as much as the faster folks but that’s the way it goes.

At just before 7:50 I lined up with all the other folks.  Normally, as I said, you have a new start every minute or two, so you hear the horn, shuffle forward, wait, hear the horn, shuffle forward, and so on until it’s your turn.  Then you go.  I normally try to use that time to review my plans, settle my nerves, remind myself about going slow, stretch a bit more, and get my phone application set to start with the start line.  That didn’t work out so well this time.  This time, we heard the horn, shuffled, heard the horn, and then just kept on shuffling right up to the start and off we went.

The people who were all saying that they were “just going to beat the sweeper” went off at a quick pace, at least for a planned 15:50 speed.  I was sucked up with them and did my first half mile in 13:48.  Yeah, 2 minutes a mile faster than I should have.  I realized that they were going too fast and cut back but found it extremely difficult to stay with my planned pace. I didn’t succeed in slowing down to my target pace until the 10th mile.  At that point it was too late and all I could do was try to hang on.  I passed through the half marathon point at 3:23:12 by my app.

There are trail vehicles (the “sweepers”) that follow along and keep the end of the marathon stragglers from missing the cut-off.  The cut-off time is determined by the time the last runner goes through the start gate, though I suspect that, judging by the fact that a few much faster runners came past a couple miles into the run, that it might be more accurate to say “… in the corrals”.  Anyway, the drivers have a target time for each mile. For example, if you’re supposed to be at mile 5 by 9:20 and you’re late, they will give you a lift up to a point ahead of cut-off (say mile 6 so you’ll have an extra 10 minutes before the time catches you, perhaps), unless you’re having problems and then they’ll take you to a medical tent for help.  The medical folks will either put you right or send you off to the finish (or, I presume, to the hospital…).

I should also mention that things get kind of confusing for the very back of the pack. The result of the people getting lifts is that you may go from having a number of people behind you to nobody.  Then you may pass those same people even though you didn’t see them pass you. That can make you feel kind of paranoid (or at least it did me).

Camelback Mountain still ahead

Camelback Mountain still ahead – up ahead you can see the trail vehicles making a drop off

By mile 9 only a few people were still in sight.  The course starts a climb near Camelback Mountain that isn’t very noticeable in a car but, given I was beginning to slow anyway, made quite an impact on my pace.  From there on, my mile times slipped behind my goal pace.  I was far enough ahead that it took quite a while before the sweeper finally came for me at about 19.5 miles.  By that time I was “hitting the wall”.  The driver bumped us up to 20 miles and I started again but my pace had slowed seriously.  She caught up to me again just a short while later and this time I had blood on my shoe from a popped blister and was cramping and had nothing left, so I called it a day.

Lessons Learned

Things get a little complex in this part because the lessons were both positive and negative, sometimes at the same time.  For example, a lesson learned is that I should recognize my limits but how does one find that limit without putting a toe or more over the line?

I think maybe I’ll take them in terms of the training and then the day, as I did the background story.  Some of the lessons deal with choices I made a year ago.

The First Lesson: Be Honest

I had been sick at the beginning of 2016 for more than a week with a horrible cold and I was so tired that I dropped back from the half marathon to the 10K.  I simply wasn’t able to do a half.  That was one of the factors that prompted me to sign up for the full.  I felt like I’d been cheated out of a bigger race.  I’d been thinking about doing another full, I had the whole year, I could always drop back if things got hairy, and it was going to be the 20th Anniversary year for Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons so I expected that it would rock.  It seemed like a good idea to try for the marathon. However, in the years before, I had been inconsistent, going from 500 to 800 miles a year and a lot of that just miles, not serious training.  I was walking more than running a lot of those miles.  So my lesson is that doing something this hard requires either a younger body, a longer training period or more serious preparation.  The first one is out of range since I’m not a time traveler but the other two I can do.

Lesson Two: Lack of Speed Kills

Go fast early, then long in training.  That’s kind of ironic since that’s what I did in the race, but in training it’s the way to go. I like adding miles.  There’s an ego trip in saying “yeah, I just got back from a 10-miler.” It’s measurable, quantifiable progress.  This week I did 19 miles, next week I’m going to do 21.  Adding speed makes that all muddy.  This week I did 19 miles but it included tempo, some long intervals, and a 10 mile run.  Next week I’ll do 21, but it’ll be short intervals, some hill work, fartleks and my long run will only be 7 miles.  How do you judge a hard week or an easy one?

When you’re only as fast as a turtle wading through peanut butter when you’re running, the idea of doing intervals sounds kind of silly.  Silly or not, though, I should have worked on going faster first.  As I said earlier, on a good morning I could run below 14 minutes a mile (actually, I got below 12 for a full mile once in training).  Most of my runs were at 17 minutes a mile for a long time.  And that’s okay, per Galloway, especially in the heat.  Most training should be easy miles (up to 80%, I’ve read).

However, the other 20% should be split between moderate and hard efforts at speed from short intervals to tempo to race pace to mile pace.  That’s the part where I fell down.  I also expect that running faster will make those long miles a lot easier.  If I can do 12 minute miles, that’s 5 miles an hour.  At 15 minutes per, that’s only 4.  For a 10 miler, then, if I can comfortably run at 12 minute pace I’ll be done a half hour before what I would at 15, and I’ll get more intensity packed into the run.  The key is to be fast enough so that 12 minutes is easy running.   I paid for those fast early miles last week not just in loss of energy and leg fatigue but also in soreness in the groin and shoulders because I was running faster than I had run in ages over a long distance.

Lesson Three: Flexibility Keeps You Running

Do stretches properly and do them when they should be done.  I’ve learned that there are some stretches that I have to do regularly and several others that I should be doing.  I was injured to a greater or lesser extent with Achilles tendonitis 3 times and with repeated bouts of plantar fasciitis over the last year.  In addition, I have a running (so to speak) game of tag with my sciatic nerve in my right hip.  Those injuries cost me training time and intensity.  On race day, I think that my being tight made the miles cost more than they would have, and made the groin and shoulders more painful.

I’ve learned stretches that work for me over the years for other back problems and knee issues but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time for me to get serious about regular dynamic stretching before running and static stretches post exercise.  I’ve found a short series that I’m going to use as a starter set and add a few more for specific problems like that groin strain.

Lesson Four: Power Up

Strength work is needed whether I like it or not.  Stretching isn’t comfortable, especially when you have a really tight tendon that you have to really work, but I would much rather do that than do planks.  Those are just short of torture for me.  However, I’m going to find and start doing strength work because in the closing miles, when I was still trying to run, I had seized up.  My shoulders were tight, my abdomen was tight, my calves and quads and hamstrings were tight and it wasn’t just flexibility – it was because the muscles were not prepared for that load for that long. Building up the tone and getting them used to working again will take more than just the running itself.  Not only is it needed as a support for the latter part of the race but those muscles help your posture in every run.  They counterbalance the ones that are overdeveloped and they protect you from injury.

Lesson Five: Brain Pain

A marathon is not just a lot of running.  Even more, it’s about mental strength.  Going into the race with jitters about performance is normal and healthy, but going in with stress from worry about the cut-off time, worry about the weather, worry about how solid the training – that is a mistake. Knowing, as I did, that I had gone out too fast probably undermined my ability to continue when the trail vehicle caught up to me.  I was physically beat up but I was equally beat up in my head space.  A lot of people run with music or other means of drowning out their internal dialog but I’ve never needed that – until last week.  I’ve been known to sing (I call it singing, anyway) to get myself geared up to run hard at a finish line, but music takes away from being in the moment.  It’s like being in an art museum and listening to the audio guide without ever stopping to look at the art. It’s part of why I run, being out in the world, listening to the wind and the birds.  And too, the way my foot sounds hitting the pavement or asphalt or gravel tells me how my form is.  If I’m nearly silent then things are working well but if I slap the pavement I’m losing form and risking injury if I don’t take steps to correct it.

However, after four or five hours out there, mostly on your own because the rest of the pack has mostly finished and is off at the after-race concert, it’s really difficult to keep monitoring your body and keep trying to stay on pace.  Heck, by then the porta-potty break was seriously needed but that would cost precious minutes, so choosing the time to stop felt like a critical decision. Knowing that you’re getting blisters or that your calf is about to cramp can also mean taking steps to correct them before you give out.  I pushed on because I knew I was close to cut-off over and over, but there’s a point where your mind just doesn’t have the power to get your body back up to speed.  Or to go farther without rest.  That’s the balance – you can have physical and mental strength, but you have to have both together.

Lesson Six: Being Honest About the Goals

Know when to say when. I should have admitted that I wasn’t ready for the full but for lots of reasons I decided to try anyway.  The first and biggest reason was that I wanted to cross that finish line again.  If the day went right, I might very well have pulled it off.  I had told a lot of people about my training and my ego was therefore also invested in my doing the full.  Going down to the half without testing myself would have felt like I’d copped out on my commitment to them and to me.  I also wanted the finisher’s jacket.  The funny thing about that last is that I’d have to lose another 30 or more pounds to be able to wear it.  People my size aren’t supposed to run marathons.  They’re line backers and couch potatoes.  But I did know this much: I stopped before I really hurt myself.  Yes, I got blisters and sore muscles but I didn’t tear anything, I didn’t get sick all over the road, and I came out of it with the desire to fix it and try again.  To paraphrase Edison’s famous saying, I didn’t fail.  I learned several ways not to run a marathon.

Lesson Seven: Practice May Not Make Perfect, But…

Practice and test everything, even if you think you have already.  I have practiced drinking from the little cups many times and I don’t mind the Gatorade that they offered.  I didn’t try the GLUKOS primarily because I hadn’t had it beforehand.  I had my sport beans and my own water as well. I started getting queasy toward the 17th mile or so and I realized that I had been taking in too much fluid and not absorbing enough.  That was probably a combination of things.  It was cool and overcast so I wasn’t losing as much fluid to sweat as I might otherwise.  Running faster for so long my body had shut down my stomach in favor of keeping me running, too.  And I was taking water at the aid stations along with the Gatorade in order to preserve some of the water in my pack.  That was a mistake.  I still had quite a bit of water in my pack when I got home – I wasn’t drinking all that much from my bag except to wash down the beans.

I also made a mistake with the shoes and socks. I think that I would have been much worse the next couple days if I’d run in the other shoes.  My mistake was not running in them more before the race.  I should also have done a better job on the Body Glide on my toes.  And I don’t know for sure which socks I wore the previous 20-miler with the Clifton 3s.  I may have worn a different pair than the Thorlos, so that combination may have contributed to the blisters.

Coda: the Last Lesson (The Bear Really Didn’t Get Me)

The support van picked me up from the med tent after I got my blisters treated and hauled me to the finish line.  Because the trailing vehicles really did trail the race, I got there just as the last few people were finishing – some with an impressive kick at the end, some hobbling.  They offered me a finisher’s medal for the full – all the people who were jumped forward but still finished got them – but I chose instead a finisher’s medal for the half.  I ran a total of just over 20 miles so I honestly earned that and I know, as do my family and friends, that I did a lot more.  And that’s the last lesson, at least for now.  I know what I did, I know what needs to be done, I know that I wasn’t quite there yet but that I will be.  I may not have gotten that bear but it didn’t get me either.  It’s a draw for now.

My plans are to recover first (gentle recovery runs and no worries about miles or speed until my body says “go!”) and then spend the next few weeks on speed work while maintaining a moderate long run on the weekend.  Sometime in early April I’ll start going longer for my next half, already set for June.  Over the summer I will work on more speed and not start adding miles again until September.  I’m going to try to lower my half marathon time by a substantial amount (I’d like to see at least a half hour and maybe 45 minutes) by next year at this time when I’ll run the half again.  If I’m fit, lighter, and properly prepared, I will try for a marathon either in the fall of 2018 or winter/spring 2019.

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