After signing up for the California International Marathon and booking my hotel for the weekend of Dec.6, I was fully committed (so to speak) to running my first marathon in over three years. All that remained was the actual training. No problem ;)
I have logged countless miles, I've got USATF/RRCA coaching certification, I've designed training programs for countless people from all walks of life. Designing a training program for myself should be a walk in the park. Who knows me better than me? Truthfully, it was with no shortage of trepidation that I started to piece together the first few weeks of my training.
I had run 20+ miles during the course of my training program for the San Francisco Marathon, but most of these miles were not at 'my pace'. Nevertheless, these miles certainly count for something. But, I didn't really feel like I had a clear handle on exactly where my running fitness truly was.
I decided to implement a slightly different approach than what I had done in the past for my marathons. In the past, I had always done one big long run, a track workout, and about an hour long run with 20 minutes of tempo. This worked, but given how long it's been since I trained for a marathon and some of the issues I've encountered, I started thinking maybe another quasi-long run in the middle of the week would be worth trying to REALLY build my endurance base.
I'd forgo the tempo/track stuff for at least the first few weeks and see how this different approach worked. Due to the challenging schedule I have, my best days for longer runs are Wednesdays/Fridays in the middle of the day. Of course, my very first legitimate 'long run' (15 miles) fell on one of the hottest Wednesdays San Francisco has seen in quite some time.
Nevertheless, I was undaunted. Growing up in Kansas I endured countless hot, humid, oppressive summers. Surely I could endure a little heat. Things started smoothly enough. My focus was mainly on just getting the miles in and there was little focus on pacing. I kept it pretty slow due to the heat and my own uncertainty about what kind of pace I could reasonably maintain for this distance.
I was doing a pretty simple out/back course using my Garmin Forerunner and as I approached 7.5 miles I became aware of some discomfort in my heels. It had been a LONG time since I had any running related blisters, but things were not looking good. The shoes I was wearing had only been used for a handful of shorter runs. I had never logged in excess of 7 miles on them. By the time I stopped at the halfway point of my run, my heels were throbbing insistently and the pain was marked.
I tried to cinch up the laces in hopes that tightening them might reduce the slippage/irritation on my heels. Alas, my feeble attempts were all for naught. The pain intensified, but a combination of adrenaline and natural pain killers seemed to be doing a marginally effective job at keeping me on my feet.
The toughest part of my long run was ahead of me as I had scheduled 3 miles at my 'target marathon pace'. Determining what this pace should be was not easy. I could do it based on a recent race performance or what I 'ideally' wanted to run. Ultimately, I opted for the latter which came to roughly 6:07/mile. The heat, humidity, and blisters were not helping my cause. I struggled through the 3 miles and barely managed to hit target pace.
This was a bit of a shock to the system. It didn't seem that long ago that 6:07 pace was manageable (if not easy). Suddenly, this pace seemed challenging for 3 miles....let alone 26.2. I cut myself some slack as I wrapped up the 3 miles at target marathon pace as the blisters and heat were non-trivial.
By the time I finished my 3 miles at target pace, I was still a solid 2.5 miles from home and I was already running on empty. Entering Golden Gate Park, I was doing little more than slogging as I tried to wrap things up. I'm not one for walking during a run under any circumstances, but by the time I was about a mile from home, I started to feel light headed and dizzy. For the first time in I don't know how long, I stopped during one of my runs to walk. It was a humbling experience, but I knew I had come close to my limits (for the time being).
The last mile or so was a painful combination of slow running/walking, but I managed to finish. I took solace in completing the run and recognized that this was about as bad of a long run as I have had in years. It's unlikely I'd experience too many long runs quite so unpleasant. Little did I know I'd experience something equally as unpleasant scarcely a week later.
The following week I succumbed to a pretty heinous rhinovirus. My voice came to resemble an amalgamation of Peter Brady during puberty and Kathleen Turner (back when she was sultry). Congested, exhausted, and coughing I contemplated bagging out on most of my runs. But, whenever I'm sick, running is pretty much the only time I feel vaguely human.
I postponed my 'Wednesday' long run to Friday in the hopes that my immune system would rebound in a couple days. By Friday, it was sweltering outside, I sounded (and felt) like shit, and I could barely rally myself from my bed let alone find my way through 16 miles.
The only viable option (in my mind) was to attempt this on a treadmill. I'm notorious for doing long runs on treadmills. Those who know me think I'm insane for doing this (and I'm not claiming they're wrong), but it's a controlled setting and if things just weren't clicking, I could always pull the plug, call it a day, and crawl back into bed.
I brought my ipod and plenty of fluids. The first 25% of the run went surprisingly well and I almost forgot I felt like total shit. I made it through 8 miles without passing out or coughing up a lung. Although, I'm pretty confident I frightened a handful of folks running at the adjacent treadmills with my periodic hacking.
Miles 8 to 12 were hellacious as I again attempted to knock out 3 miles at my target marathon pace. I pulled it off, but again found myself feeling light headed and dizzy. It wasn't exactly cool in the gym given the minimal air circulation. I probably would have bailed entirely on miles 12-16 had the treadmill not actually forced me to run the last four miles.
I staggered home from this unpleasant 16 miler feeling more than a bit punch drunk. I was destroyed. But, again I gave myself credit for finishing this ridiculously unpleasant long run...despite everything.
There was a part of me that found these first two terrible long runs darkly comical. Here I was almost three years removed from my last marathon embarking on a new training cycle and I have my ass handed to me in a big way the first couple weeks. Was this a sign that I was foolish for attempting this again? Was I just getting over the hump (in so many words)?
Last week was the third long run of my training cycle and while it was still hot/humid, my health had improved and I was wearing shoes that I was comfortable would not give me a blister larger than a speedbump. Remarkably enough, things actually felt marginally better. I completed the run with little incident.
One of the illusions that many new runners have is that ALL of their runs are supposed to feel great. Having a crappy run almost inevitably spells doom to the uninitiated. It's easy in many respects to ascribe too much significance to 'one' run. But, regardless of what distance you're training for, a single run likely won't make a huge difference one way or the other.
One of the best lessons I learned from the best coach I worked with was to just simply 'finish'. No matter how crappy you feel, no matter how slow you're running, just finish the run. I didn't enjoy my crappy consecutive long runs, but even when I was feeling awful (most of both runs), I knew there was at the very least a psychological benefit to completing a run this challenging in less than optimal conditions. It has already given me the confidence that I can perform at a much higher level with more 'optimal' conditions. This inauspicious start was likely a blessing.