Last year after finishing the Boston and Vermont City marathons with only a six week stretch between them, I decided to skip the fall marathon, focus on speed and see if that focus could improve a 2011 marathon time. On April 16, I ran the the Gansett Marathon, my sixth overall, and my first and last as a 40-year-old, in 3:08:07 for a personal best by 4 minutes, 42 seconds. Based on the outcome, the experiment seems to have worked, but getting to the starting line in one piece became a slightly more complicated story than that straightforward result might imply. Here’s a summary of some injury rehab experiences, the training cycle, and observations on the taper process and race day experience.
Getting there is half the fun
Sticking to my usual 50-55 mile per week training volume, but with the workouts tailored to speed (shorter, more frequent, more intervals), kept me sane and clear-headed brought me pleasantly surprising PRs in two key races – an 18:59 5K in August 2010 and a 1:27:52 half marathon in October 2010. Unfortunately, I ran some hard workouts too soon after that second race and managed to induce a pretty severe case of Achilles tendinitis in my left leg, which took three months plus to rehab. That meant that I was still babying my leg when the workouts started in mid-December for the 18-week marathon training plan I follow (Pfitzinger).
For the first nine weeks or so of the training cycle I worried about a relapse into the tendinitis. My ankle got better, but it was still sore sometimes, and felt “weird” often. I said to myself, “I’ll just do this next run, and if my ankle feels any worse than this, I’m going to bag it.” And always on the next run, the ankle felt just a little better instead of a little worse, and despite always feeling like, “well, I got through this 10 miler, but my ankle is never going to hold up for 12,” etc., the ankle always held up, just barely. I did many eccentric calf raise exercises and wore a heel lift in my dress shoes to help during stretches of the rehab.
By halfway through the cycle, though, I stopped being ginger about speed, and started hitting the prescribed paces for my race-pace long runs and tempo runs. I was pleased that the plan seemed to be coming together, and I was keeping to the schedule, despite being busy with family, work and work travel (squeezed in many runs in the very early morning in unfamiliar cities, including Munich, San Diego and San Jose!). When I wasn’t traveling, it seemed like I was doing long runs in incredible cold (-4F one day!), snow (18-miler in the aftermath of a blizzard) and wind (race-pace 16 miler in a 25-30 MPH headwind) . Some of these were simply brutal slogs, but I ended up being grateful for the torture come race day.
Taper woes, big time
While it seemed like I’d well overcome the tendinitis and was running strong near the end of my plan, the taper felt like a disaster. I have never felt stiffer and more or off-kilter than I did in the final week of rest before this marathon. I did not feel rested or strong, and my last “dress rehearsal” seven-miler with two miles at marathon pace was grueling and painful. It was hard to imagine how I’d be able to run 26.2 miles at marathon race pace (goal 7:10) when two miles felt so intense and left me gasping for breath. My primary comfort at that point was the experience of prior races, and the training. I’d logged those miles, hit those goal times for race-pace, tempo and interval workouts and I knew what I should be able to do. I just had to believe that this insane pre-race fatigue and soreness was just a symptom of rest, healing and my mind working on things behind the scenes.
The Gansett Marathon
This is the second year of the Gansett Marathon (check out the Runner’s World and NPR stories) , and the first in Narragansett. It began in Exeter, RI, last year, started as an alternative to Boston by Mike Tammaro. It’s a qualifier-only race – and the qualifying times are five minutes faster in each category than Boston qualifying times. Last year in Exeter, there were about 50 runners. This year, just under 200. Still a very small race, with a very seasoned, serious field of runners. That meant a couple of things, from my perspective:
- It’s intimidating. All these folks are “real” runners. I still feel pretty shy around real runners, all these slim, fast cheetahpeople. I’m always sure I don’t know the shibboleths; like at dinner when I had a beer with my pasta and one guy said incredulously (though not unkindly), “Is that beer? You’re really going to drink that this close to the race?” Yup. Seriously, though, the running community is a warm and welcoming one, to beginners, and to all fitness levels and body types. But I’ll still never get over the sense that real runners can spot me as a chubby, bookish, non-athlete a mile away. (Note: A few folks have asked me about this since I posted the story. It’s true, at least it was true, and back then, “chubby” would have been a kind, delicate way to put it. If I’m differently shaped these days, it’s not something that occurs to me when I walk into a room full of runners. Check out Peter Sagal’s Runner’s World column on this.)
- It was likely to get lonely out there. A pack of fewer than 200 people will spread out pretty quickly on a 26.2-mile course, and chances are you’ll end up running a lot of it alone, nobody to pace with or swap lead with to ease the effects of the wind. Few spectators there to cheer you on at a race this small, and this new.
We got into Narragansett, RI, on Friday night and checked into our motel, a little one right on the course. The wind was screaming in off the ocean and the air was bitter. I fretted at this. We went to the pasta dinner and found seats and made friends with some other runners. Despite my intimidation at being around all these seasoned-marathoners, everyone was really friendly, very willing to share advice and stories. Later Curt and Danielle arrived with their baby (He was the little guy Danielle was expecting while she and Kris cheered Curt and I on at Boston last year – this year it’s Kris who’s expecting!) and we all sat together and went out for a little while after. It’s amazing to think how much we’ve shared with these friends, from training together, racing together, watching each other’s families grow together. So much relationship grown out of an initial interest in running!
Race morning dawned cold and windy. The wind roared in off the ocean and all the flags were standing out straight. As usual I questioned all my firmly made plans (maybe I’ll bring music after all to combat the lonely, windy stretches, maybe I’ll wear a jacket because it’s so cold and windy, etc.), and as usual in the end I went with my plan, handing off my phone and jacket to Kris right at the starting line and running only with Nike Pegasus shoes, shorts, long-sleeved, compression top, and light running gloves.
There were no timing chips, and all the signs were hand made. The small field arranged itself smoothly and right at 8 a.m. we were off. The course was two loops, the first 16 miles, and the second 10. My goal was to run fairly even splits, somewhere between 7:05 and 7:15 depending on the terrain and the wind, and average 7:10s.
As the first two miles unwound themselves in a mellow climb along the ocean, I realized I felt good for the first time in two weeks. Everything was running smoothly, and the pace seemed effortless aerobically, despite the wind. Then at mile three my left hamstring began to knot up. I couldn’t believe it. This was the one muscle in my entire body that hand’t given me a lick of trouble during training. And I wasn’t sprinting, I’d started easy, run a good warmup besides – why in the world would my hamstring be failing? I closed my eyes, prayed a bit, imagined the knot undoing itself. And slowly, over the next quarter mile, it did. I settled in and really enjoyed the run, even when we turned toward the ocean into the teeth of the raging wind. The volunteers on the course were tremendous, and despite the cold and how small the race was, a number of the good citizens of Narragansett had turned out to watch and cheer. The first loop included a jog through some cool little beach neighborhoods and over a causeway (windy!), then a climb up a steeper hill again straight into the wind, and then a long, head-windy but gentle climb. It was here, at mile 13, that Kris and Danielle were waiting, taking pictures and cheering. It always gives me a boost to see Kris on the course and I felt terrific climbing the hill. I hit 13.1 miles at 1:33:40 or so, and felt like I was right where I wanted to be.
In terms of pacing, I’ve experimented with going out fast and putting minutes in the bank, and with going at an even pace, and the even pace has always worked out best. My cleanest, most in control finishes have been with even paced runs.
I topped the hill and started through a wooded stretch that brings you back into town and to the ocean where you start the second 10 mile loop, and all the good, strong feelings vanished as my hamstring knotted again. This time it felt bad, coiled like a fiery snake. The snake, and the heat and the dull pain, all pulsed there against the back of my leg for the next quarter of a mile. Then they began to crawl. I wondered how much longer I had before they forced me to stop. If I stopped I didn’t think I would get going again. I had more than ten miles to run. The knot-snake slithered down and bunched itself up around the inside of my knee. It brought back back memories of the IT band injury that caused me to drop out at mile 23 in Hyannis. Then it crawled on, around my leg, down into my calf. It was the strangest experience. The calf bulged as the snake wrapped around it. Then the snake crawled on, down into my heel and out the bottom of my foot. A mile and a half had passed since the knot had returned. I’d slowed my pace by about 10 seconds but hadn’t stopped. I picked it back up. Ate a Gu hoping the sugar would stave off anymore cramps. I began the last loop, the final ten miles, and felt strong again.
From there on out, I went through the usual ups and downs in terms of energy, but nothing serious, no hitting the wall and no return of the hamstring knot. It got harder to hold my pace, especially on the hills, but I held it. I felt strong enough during the last long climb to pick the pace up a bit around mile 23 and laid into it as best I could from mile 24 on to the finish. My legs were jelly at that point, and it felt like all the coordination was gone out of them. I had to focus intently on making each step land properly, but my lungs and overall energy level felt good. I got mile 25 down to a 7:05 pace, mile 26 was 7:10, and the final .2 was at 6:42 pace. This was a much more pleasant way to finish than my finishes at Boston and Portland, which were both white hazes of exhaustion and just barely hanging on.
And so that’s it. Eighteen weeks of um… challenging… New Hampshire winter training, and a wonderful, exhausting morning of racing. Gansett was a cool course, a well-organized race and the small field made it truly unique in this era of huge “event” marathons. This was like running the tiniest community 5K, except that it was 26.2 miles long and all the runners were seasoned racers. Kris and I went to the after party for a while at the Mews, then headed back to Massachusetts to pick up the kids and get to the Saturday evening Palm Sunday Mass, then home to NH to sleep before flying out to Memphis for work at 7 a.m. the next morning, which seems like an adequate example of how busy life has been these days.
At the risk of falling into to the cliche of justifying this lunacy with a life lesson, a “why I marathon” moment, I’ll offer a final thought on it all relative to that “busyness” I just noted: I was telling somebody about the race the other day and a specific moment came back to me. I was around mile 22, and beginning a slight climb, struggling a bit to hold my pace but feeling like it was possible, that I had another gear to shift to, another store of reserves to dig into, and at that moment, rather than feeling disconnected from the world and its challenges, rather than being zoned out from everything except the race, I felt tuned in to everything – to all my duties and responsibilities, all my cares and concerns, all my loves and joys, and I felt like all those things were, at that moment, shuffled into the proper perspective. It was, I imagine, a hint of what being connected to eternity, of knowing outside of time, must feel like. And as I write this on Good Friday, with Easter fast approaching, that perspective feels especially powerful. And so is a moment like that (if that moment were the sole benefit a race provided, which it isn’t) worth all the labor and pain that goes into preparing to run one of these things? Yup, I think perhaps it would be.