Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day of Reckoning

I entered taper for the California International Marathon rife with questions and doubts. I had been so consumed with the idea of running a time in the 2:30's (2:39:59, specifically) that I hadn't really spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not this was a realistic goal.

I had done the lion's share of the workouts on my training schedule, but many of them were MUCH tougher than I anticipated. 3 years ago, these same workouts were a bit easier. As I dialed back my mileage in preparation for race day, I began to confront the reality that a 2:39:59 might not be in the cards.

This is not to say that I'm not 'capable' of running this kind of time, but maybe I was asking too much, too soon. As I began to think more and more of aiming for a time that was a bit slower (read-realistic), my anxiety about the race began to decrease.

I was confident I was in the kind of shape to run a 2:45 (I had done this 3 years ago) and if the stars aligned, I could steal a few minutes perhaps and get yet another PR. At the end of the day, this whole exercise was about finding out if I could still do what I did three years ago. I wanted to feel strong and positive on race day. If I tried to go out with 2:39:59 in mind, I had a gut feeling that I would find myself in a world of hurt by about mile 20.

So, my race strategy evolved. I would go out conservatively and try to maintain about 2:45 pace for the first 10-13 miles. If I felt GREAT, I would try to pick up the pace for the second half of the race. This seemed like a strategy I could execute without too much trouble.

In typical fashion, I arrived a couple days before the race. Even though Folsom is only a couple hours from San Francisco, I like having 48 hours to get oriented, relax, and focus on the race. As I've mentioned to those who know me, I'm not the most social animal in the days leading up to a big race. I like to be alone for the most part.

On Saturday I did the obligatory expo routine to get my bib, but I exited as quickly as possible. Am I the only one who can't stand going to expos the day before a big race? Maybe it's the enormous amount of collective nervous energy present at these events that turns me off so much. I took in early dinner with my folks and headed back to my hotel to attempt to get a few hours of sleep before getting up around 4:30AM.

Surprisingly, I fell asleep without much incident around 10PM, but woke up early...around 2:30AM. This was more sleep than I typically get the night before a marathon. I tried to steal a few more minutes, but the wheels were already turning. Finally, I got up around 4 and started getting ready.

The last time I ran a marathon, GI distress derailed me around mile 21. Granted, I still ran a great time, but I was really hoping to avoid this. I had a pretty light breakfast with a cup of coffee. I brought some Pepto Bismol tablets with me to the race in case the stomach started to complain.

I got on the bus to head towards the start and the clown sitting next to me starts chatting up a storm. This is something that drives me nuts. I can only assume it comes from excess nervous energy, but I am NOT a talker on race day. Fortunately, I had my Ipod and quickly his inane questions were drowned out by Rob Zombie's 'More Human Than Human'.

An eternity passed between our arrival at the start and the actual start of the race. This was the smallest marathon I'd ever participated in, but there were still about 7,000 people lining up. The weather was in the low forties around the time the gun went off which was a great thing because it made going out fast nearly impossible.

The first mile was right about where I wanted it to be....hovering around 2:45 pace. Once I rolled through the first 5 miles or so, the cold weather became barely noticeable as everything started to loosen up. I arrived at mile 10 and felt solid. Not fantastic, but comfortable and confident that the pace I was running was manageable for the rest of the race. But, I knew that if I picked up the pace much more for the second half of the race, my goose would likely be cooked.

I pretty much had my pace locked in and was feeling the 'runner's high' as I rolled through the halfway point at 1:21:33. This was more than a minute slower than what I ran in 2005 for my 2:45 effort which was right about where I wanted to be. I was fairly confident I could maintain my current pace. I had managed to go out conservatively. All I needed to do was maintain and I was well positioned to post another PR.

I had introduced a slightly different approach to my nutrition. I knocked back twice as many gels as I had in previous marathons....4 versus 2. Like clockwork I consumed a gel every 30 minutes whether there was water available or not. The stomach didn't complain once and my energy level remained pretty consistent throughout the race.

The next few miles went by in a blur. My pacing stayed right around where it needed to be in order for me to get my PR. I hit mile 20 and found myself feeling strong/confident. The race was on and rather than fading, I found myself getting pumped. Conveniently, some onlookers jacked up the volume on their speakers as 'Eye of The Tiger' played. I was ready to wrap this up.

The next couple miles reflected my positive mindset as I knocked out a 6:08, 6:05, and a 6:13. I had three miles left and while I was still feeling very positive, my body was starting to betray me. The slow burn of lactic acid became an erupting volcano from which I could find no escape. The good news is that I had expected this...I had anticipated this...I had PLANNED for this.

Having run a few marathons before, the pain and discomfort in the latter stages is a given. It's not a question of 'if', it's just a question of 'when'. If you do the training, your race strategy is sound, and you stick to your race strategy, you can 'minimize' this 'window of pain'.

My positive attitude was not waning as I knew I could endure the pain for another 3 miles. The key was staying focused and just keeping my legs moving. The temptation to walk dangerously crept in as those around me began to fade and I started to encounter more and more people walking. I kept reminding myself of everything I'd been through just to get here. I reminded myself how close I was to a personal record. I could taste it and I wanted it BAD. I kept moving forward.

As was the case with my previous marathons, I found my vision narrowing. I don't remember much of anything those last few miles. I vaguely recall some shapes on the side of the road that were likely runners and/or spectators, but there are no details I can recall. I was marshaling everything I had for the sole purpose of keeping my legs moving at their current rate.

I hit mile 26 and heard my father's voice as he cheered me on. I wanted to look over in the direction of his voice, but this would have required too much energy. I wanted to wave in his direction, but that would have been asking too much.

I rounded the corner and after nearly four months of training, preparing, and visualizing this moment, the finish line was in front of me. I somehow found a way to pick up the pace one last time and surged towards the finish. My finish time was 2:43:40...this was a 2+ minute PR which may not sound like much, but for anyone who's done a marathon, any kind of PR is a big deal.

As I was driving home later that day, I found myself getting a bit choked up as I reflected on EVERYTHING I had gone through since the 2:45 marathon I ran in 2005. I remember feeling great at the end of this marathon thinking I had just started to reach my potential as a marathoner only to have my body betray me a few months later. 2006 would prove to be a veritable house of horrors for me as I experienced my body's gradual breakdown and shutdown. By year's end, I couldn't log a single mile.

I started 2007 with confidence/optimism, but my body still wasn't allowing me to do what I used to do and my business required the brunt of my attentions/energies. 2008 rolled around and while I was confident things were aligning for my business, my body was still a big question mark. I tried introducing a few new wrinkles and my body responded. But, given what I had been through in 2006 and much of 2007, a marathon was not something I was contemplating with any seriousness.

But, I helped a handful of runners conquer a marathon in July and was inspired. I was inspired by seeing them achieve something I used to do. I was also inspired by my body's reaction to many of the long runs I did with them. I could still handle 20 miles. I could still run the way I used to. I owe all of these marathoners a debt of gratitude b/c without them I don't know if I would have attempted training for a marathon in 2008. It reawakened my passion for the marathon.

While I've done a reasonable amount of running and racing and had some amazing experiences, this was in many respects the race of my life. This is not just because it was the fastest time I've run for 26.2 miles. It was everything that led up to the actual race itself that made this one so special. It was the suffering I endured. It was the pain I ran through. It was the questions and doubts I confronted that made this race so special. Even if a PR didn't materialize, if I could run a strong race and put forth an effort even close to what I did 3 years ago, I would have been happy.

I don't think I've ever been so keenly attuned to my body as I was during this training cycle and during the race itself. I squeezed everything I possibly could out of my body in this one given the shape I was in. This was evidenced by the fact that I could barely walk as soon as I finished the race and a few seconds prior I was running sub 6:00 pace. This is something that I attribute to age and experience. 3 years ago, I don't think I could have done this.

If I never run another marathon, I would be happy to finish my marathon 'career' this way. But, as is always the case with running, there are inevitably new goals to be set. When I started training, I put a piece of paper with 2:39:59 and the date 12/7/08 above my computer at my desk so I could see it every day. I recently changed the date on this piece of paper to 12/6/09....the date for the California International Marathon NEXT year. Hope springs eternal. Just keep moving forward :)

The Best Laid Plans.. REALLY...I had EVERY intention of doing regular postings during the course of my training cycle for the California International Marathon, but life always seems to get in the way. Clients, training programs, maintaining some vague semblance of a social life, and the distressing, but overwhelming urge to sleep on occasion prevented me from being diligent about regularly posting. So, I will try to synopsize how training unfolded from mid-September until race day.

Given the kind of schedule I have, I found myself logging most of my runs in the middle of the day for the majority of my training. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but it was unseasonably warm in San Francisco for pretty much all of September, October, and part of November. Global warming, anyone? It's kind of hard to 'celebrate' the great weather when you haven't seen weather like this in San Francisco like....ever. Also, the heat/humidity ABSOLUTELY made running a beast every single time I stepped outside.

Setting aside the challenges associated with the heat and humidity, I began to find myself virtually always running on fumes after about 6 weeks of consistent training. I knew I wasn't getting enough sleep during the week as this training cycle fell right in the middle of the busiest time of year for me in terms of personal clients. This meant getting up at 6AM most days to work with clients and meeting with clients again in the evening after 6PM or so. It's virtually impossible for me to go to bed any earlier than 10PM, but that's really what I needed to do. Unfortunately, it almost never happened. This meant my recovery was frequently compromised and I didn't feel terribly sharp for most of my key workout. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. I had already booked the hotel and paid for race registration.

In mid-October, I went on my first vacation in over four years. The two weeks prior to my vacation was nothing short of RIDONKULOUS! (Forgive me...I just discovered this word and I can't fully explain why this word works for me.) To summarize, I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. I felt like crap as soon as I got on the plane. I tried deluding myself for awhile that all I needed was a couple days of rest and I'd be feeling sharp again.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Kauai, my immune system completely collapsed. Did I mention this was my first vacation in four years? Did I mention I was also training for a marathon? I had no choice but to laugh lest I drown in my own tears. Despite my compromised immune system, I was still determined to get most of my training in.

What unfolded was the most UNPLEASANT stretch of running I've had in years. I've had more than my fair share of runs that didn't go so well, but this was RIDONKULOUS (Ok...this is REALLY the last time I'm using this word for this posting...maybe.). Literally, every single run felt crappy from the get go. Granted, there was SIGNIFICANT heat and humidity to contend with in addition to my compromised immune system, but after about 4-5 days of this, I really thought maybe it was time to hang up the running shoes and try ultimate fighting...or professional wrestling.

By the time my vacation wrapped and I was en route back to San Francisco, my confidence was shaken about tackling California International. But, I held to the hope that better weather and an improved immune system would help me get back on track. The weather was still warm when I returned to SF in late October, but cool in comparison to what I endured in Kauai. By the way, if you're going to be sick as a dog, Kauai's not a bad place to convalesce. I should also mention that I had already been sick once before during this training cycle....and I pretty much never get sick. Overtraining, anyone?

I earnestly continued with the training despite everything recognizing that I really only had about another 4 weeks of quality training left and just about every run counted at this point. The fatigue that haunted my training from the beginning never really dissipated, but it had been 3+ years since I had attempted anything like this, so in some respects it was no real surprise.

My confidence was already dipping a bit and a 2:39:59 was beginning to seem like a pipedream. About a week before my biggest long run of the season, I blew out my right ankle in the middle of a pace run. This setback initially seemed devastating. But, after wincing in pain with each step I realized the ankle wasn't broken. I managed to painfully jog all the way back home and attacked the ankle with ice, compression, elevation, etc.

Given where I was in my training, it really wasn't an option to take time off...unless the ankle was actually broken which wasn't the case. I bought a bulky ankle brace that provided the support and comfort of an iron boot. It wasn't fun to run in the brace, but it provided what I needed for the next couple weeks.

Finally, my biggest long run of the cycle arrived. 22 miles with 12 miles near my target pace. I took the day off before this run to allow myself some extra rest/recovery and slept well the evening before. I woke up feeling fairly confident I could pull this one off despite yet another day of unseasonable heat/humidity.

I consciously held back A LOT the first 8 miles to marshall my resources for the 12 miles at target pace. Things went well and the 12 miles at target pace were a tad slower than my target pace, but given the heat/humidity it was right at the level of effort I would need to run a 2:39:59 on race day. The last two miles of the run were hell on earth, but fortunately I just needed to get these miles in, pace was virtually irrelevant.

I had survived everything...a 3 year layoff from marathon training, two nasty colds, a blown out ankle a week before my biggest long run, but was I really ready for this?