Archive for November, 2012

Kicking Cancer’s Ass 26.2 Miles at a Time

29 months ago I was licking my wounds from running the second of two marathons in 13 days for Dom and his battle with cancer. 

It seems almost impossible that it has been that long since we came through the chute in Pittsburgh with Dom looking on and Landry still growing in her Mommy’s belly almost 4 months away from making her grand appearance on August 29th.  A Sunday.  A long run day of course.

At that point I took a step back and tried to really evaluate where I wanted to go from there with respect to running and more specifically the marathon.

I was a 42-year-old marathoner with a 3:17:43 marathon PR that was getting dusty, now exactly 12 months old.  If I wanted to continue to ascend as a runner, especially in my early 40’s I was going to have to make some changes to my training.  More speed work, more hill work, more racing at the shorter distances to gain valuable race experience and of course more mileage.

To that point I had maxed out my weekly mileage at 55 miles per week and felt like if I pushed any further than that, injury was going to rear it’s ugly head.  I needed to keep my Mondays and Fridays as “off-days” from the pounding – which limited the amount of runs and miles I could cover in a week.  I would have to get smarter, work harder and I was going to have to find a way to keep pushing.

A few months later on August 15th we lost Dom.  It was a dark, dark day.  I can’t speak for everyone who knew Dom, his family, friends or acquaintances.  I can only speak for myself and when I am completely honest, I have to admit that I lost some faith that day.  To that point I believed that if you did the right things, never gave up, battled and persevered – you were to be rewarded.  42 years of growing up a carpenter’s son and member of the Catholic Church had taught me those lessons over and over and over.

And then, it simply didn’t work.  Dom, despite all efforts, treatments, procedures, surgeries, prayers and hopes was taken from his family, his wife, his daughter and son before he reached his 40th birthday.  Somehow “fair” just didn’t enter into it.

As I was flying back to Austin after Dom’s funeral by myself, (Dawn could not make the trip as she was 8 1/2 months pregnant) – I replayed all of the conversations I had with Dom over the last year and a half.  There were times sitting alone on the plane that I laughed out loud, others when I quietly wiped a tear from the corner of my eye, hoping nobody noticed.

But the one conversation that I could not shake was the last one we had in person.  We were hugging each other in the finishing chute under the cover of the Convention Center in Pittsburgh when he whispered to me, “I know you couldn’t run these last two marathons the way you wanted to racing for me.  Go out and run the next one for you and absolutely crush it.”

That was when I decided that I was done running marathons.

I wanted to race them.

It wasn’t going to be enough to simply survive the race, I wanted to hammer away fearlessly and push the envelope of our talent, training and abilities.  I wanted to not leave a single second on the race clock.  The same approach I take in a 5K, 10K, 10-miler or half-marathon.

Leave nothing for later.

This week the runner that could not run more than 55 miles a week as a 42-year-old will be running 80 miles this week at age 45 1/2.

18 miles on Tuesday, 12 on Wednesday, 18 on Thursday, 11 on Saturday, 21 on Sunday – 80 miles.

Training for Houston, knowing this is my last planned marathon for quite some time has been challenging.  Out of the 495 miles we have logged as of lunchtime on Thursday of this week, 123 of them or 25% have been at marathon goal pace (6:52) or faster.  Something we have never done before.

The 80 total miles this week will again be something we have never done.

Next week, another tough mileage week with a 5K race thrown in on tired legs Friday night to make things interesting.

Then our last real test of the training cycle on December 16th at the Shiner Beer Half Marathon.

A final 80 mile week, the week following Shiner and then we will taper this thing up and get ready to race our ass off down in Houston.

I’m not entirely sure how we’ve gotten here.  But make no mistake, this is where we are.

After all this hard work there really isn’t a question as to whether we are going to go for it down in Houston and try to accomplish a goal time in the marathon that less than 1% of the 1% of the population that has run a marathon has ever accomplished.  Running 26.2 miles at 6:52 pace or faster.

We most certainly are.  The question on that day will be how badly do we want to hang on to the pace group when that voice inside our head that keeps saying “I can’t” is replaced by another voice that whispers in my ear for the first time – “I can”.

I’ll recognize that voice when I hear it.

Just when I need it the most.  It will be Dom.

 

Thanksgiving morning marked the 22nd running of the Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot.  A five-mile race over some of Austin’s hilliest terrain downtown benefiting Caritas of Austin a wonderful non-profit organization that has been serving Austin’s homeless, refugee and working poor populations since 1964.

Caritas envisions a community where there is respect for all individuals, hope for those experiencing poverty and opportunities for self-reliance.  The organization provides a service continuum for those experiencing poverty that begins with a safety net and links them to resources to achieve self-sufficiency.

This year alone Caritas will serve over 85,000 meals in their Community Kitchen, distribute enough take-home groceries for 43,000 meals for hungry families, provide access to 800 classes on topics like money management and smart shopping to 550 clients, provide refugee orientation classes to 435 documented refugees and help 440 individuals find jobs.

On a day like Thanksgiving, where we all need to pause for a beat to count our blessings, the Thundercloud Race serves a great cause and this year included more than 21,000 runners making it once again the largest 5-mile race in the state of Texas.  Last year more than a quarter of a million dollars was raised through the race for Caritas, this year that record was broken once again.

From a racing perspective, I frankly was a little worried about this one.  After two tough 70-mile+ training weeks with more than 50 of those miles at marathon goal pace or better, my legs were about as worn out as I can remember them during marathon training.  The course is notoriously hilly and difficult and to make things even more interesting, mother nature decided to have a little fun with us and push race temperatures at 9:30 a.m. up to 70 degrees on Thanksgiving day.  Throw in 90% humidity and it was an odd morning for a late fall race as we had been experiencing morning temperatures in the low 40’s for more than a week.  Oh well I thought as I pinned my race bib to my shorts and laid out my lightweight Brooks Singlet.  If this was easy, everyone would do it.

Elevation – Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot Course

Pre Race:  With a later start time (9:30 a.m.) it was a pretty low-pressure morning.  I woke around 6:30 a.m. to a late alarm clock.  Hopped in the shower to loosen up the muscles, had a bagel and Clif Bar chased with gatorade and was ready to make my way downtown to find parking.  The trip was uneventful and I was able to secure one of the final two parking spots in the Hooters parking lot across from Run Tex about 1/4 mile from the finishing chute.  Perfect.

I kept my sweats on and walked over to the finish line along Auditorium Shores.  The starting line would be on the Congress Avenue Bridge just up the hill and around the corner.  Whenever I can I like to walk the closing sections of a course before my warm-up so I can visualize the final 400 meters and pick out the spot where I am going to start my kick.

I ran into a runner friend of mine and we decided to run our warm-up together.  We walked back to our cars, dropped our clothes and I switched into my race flats.  We started our warm up on the Congress Avenue Bridge and ran the first mile of the course up Lavaca.  Covering the opening hill that would pull runners up close to 100 feet in the first mile.  We spun around at the top and jogged back down to the start area about 20 minutes before the gun.

I hit the porta-potty for the final time and made my way up to the front of the starting area.  With 10 minutes before the gun I crossed the start line once again, ran a quick 400 to shakeout the legs and tucked back in ready to go.  The corral was starting to get pretty crowded and I began to look around for some of my “peers”.  I spotted Scott McIntyre and Andy Bitner, two runners who on my best day I can hang with, but as beaten up as I was heading into the race, I thought they would be perfect rabbits to take me through the opening mile, then I would settle in to whatever pace my legs would allow me to hold for the remaining 4 miles of the course and run through to the finish.

I was hoping for 6:05’s, but I thought that given the factors leading up to the race and the weather, that might be a bit too ambitious.  I would start there however and see if we could hang on.  30:30 would be our target.  After a live rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, the announcer counted us down and at exactly 9:30 a.m. – We were off.

The Start:  As we shot across the mat the tightly packed crowd made things a bit dicey as we made the slight right turn to Lavaca and the left to head up the hill.  I stayed close on Scott’s heals and let him “make a hole” in the crowd ahead of us.  As is often the case in a large, shorter distance race, many runners place themselves up front so they do not get stuck in the back, but they are not capable of running the pace of the runners around them.

It makes it very difficult to navigate and I ended up doing some jostling in the openint 800 meters before thing started to spread out a bit.  Zig-zagging does very little aside from burning energy and not allowing your legs to fall into rhythm, so I try to avoid that as much as possible.  We ticked through the first half-mile in 3:04, which was a bit on the fast side as I was hoping for an opening uphill mile around 6:12-6:15, but the pace felt “right” during the climb, so we stayed with it to the top.

Just before 15th street we hit the opening mile in 6:07.  I decided that over the next mile and a half of rollers I would back off pace just a bit or our race was going to be over before it ever got started.

The Climbs:  The opening hill gets a lot of publicity, but it is really the next section of the course that is punishing.  A sharp climb, followed by a roller-coaster downhill that beats on your quadricept muscles.  At the bottom of that downhill screamer is a long half-mile climb back to the top of the course.  It is a section of the course where running “even” is very difficult and as I started to back off slightly I saw Andy and Scott pull away from me by :10 per mile or so.

On another day under different circumstances I would have gone with them, but as I feared, my legs just lacked the usual “snap” to them that would allow me to lengthen my stride out and click my turnover faster.  I was locking in around 6:10 effort instead of 6:05 and that was all we had on this day.

Mile 2 came in at 6:18, followed by mile 3 at 6:12.  The terrain making the difference in our splits as we rolled up, down and back up over the hill sections.

Finally at the start of mile 4 we gained a little of our momentum back and started to pass a few runners in front of us.  Turning south along the frontage road of Mopac (Loop 1) we enjoyed a nice downhill stretch before turning left on Cesar Chavez and making our way back toward the Congress Avenue Bridge.  Unfortunately the wind would be in our face during this section, so the benefit of the downhill terrain was tempered just a bit by the headwind.

Mile 4 would be our fastest of the day in 6:04.  Now it was time for the final climb back up to the bridge, across the river and down into the finishing area.

The Finish:  My friend Ingrid – who is a tremendous Austin runner and will be racing with us at next month’s Lights of Love 5K benefitting the Ronald McDonald House had said she would be along Cesar Chavez and on the lookout for us as we finished the race.  Sure enough as we started the climb she was on the right hand side of the course and gave me a great shoutout – “Go Joe!” – which no matter how tired you are at the end of a race brings a smile to your lips.

I hit the turn on the bridge and gave a quick wave to the large crowd of 1-mile runners who were tucked into the starting corral for their race which would start at 10:00 sharp.  As I made my way down the bridge I heard the announcer count them down 3, 2, 1 – Horn!  That meant I was now at 30:00 on the race clock and had more than 1/10 of a mile to go.  I was not going to make my goal-time of 30:30, but I had known that for quite some time now.

I made the last turn and two runners who had been alongside me on Cesar Chavez had been dropped on the bridge.  I was all alone as I saw Scott up ahead and the Andy hit the finish line.  400 meters to go and we gave what we had to the finish.  The final mile came in 6:08.

Clock:  30:49.

Post Race:  Initially I was a bit disappointed with my time as I felt like 30:30 was a reasonable goal, but as I met up with Scott and Andy and talked about their feelings about the course and conditions, I started to feel a little bit better about things.

The bottom line was I started with an opening 6:07 and closed with a 6:08.  no drop-off and my endurance is clearly as strong as it ever has been at this point of a training cycle.  While “speed” is helpful in the marathon, endurance rules the day.  I needed to “get over it” and just move on with my training.  We will have another test on December 7th to see what kind of shape our “speed” is in.  But all things considered – not a bad effort.

Dawn and Landry showed up in the finishing area and we were able to spend a little time post-race hanging out, eating bagels and cookies, and getting Landry a “kitty-cat” painted on her cheek.

As results were posted our performance became a bit more clear as we took 2nd place in our Age Group, 65th overall, which was good enough for a Turkey Trot trophy and $20 worth of gift certificates to Thundercloud Subs.  With a Thundercloud across the street from our new office location starting on December 10th, those should come in handy for sure.

So, with 7 weeks left of training for Houston – we are basically right where we need to be.  It is all about peaking on January 13th, not on November 22nd for a local 5-miler.  We ran strong, hung in tough on tired legs and finished the race off healthy and happy.

There are far worse things in life than missing a goal by :20.  At the end of the day, we have a whole lot to be thankful for.  I even had a special helper in the kitchen this year to help me carve the turkey.  Kitty Cat on the cheek and all.

I hope your Thanksgiving was a great one!

It’s race week!  Well, not Houston Marathon Week, but we are racing on Thursday morning at one of the larger local events of the year here in Austin – the Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot 5-miler (8K).  The race has been run in Austin every year since 1991, 22 years and counting.  It is a race where just about everyone who is a member of the running community in Austin is out to battle some monster hills before settling in for a day of overindulging and Football.

For a variety of circumstances, travel, training, recovering from NYC Marathon I have never had the opportunity to compete in the Turkey Trot – but this year everything seems to have worked out perfectly including race day falling during a cut-back week in my Houston Training.  After consecutive hard weeks pushing my weekly mileage to 67 and then 70 miles it was time for me to cut back the volume, recover a bit and then push even further over the next two weeks.

After 21 tough miles on Sunday I am taking a rare luxury during marathon training – two consecutive days off, then a short shake-out run tomorrow morning in my marathon race shoes that we will be making their maiden voyage at the Turkey Trot and we will be ready to race hard on Thursday.

The 8K distance is a unique one where it is of course just about 2 miles longer than a 5K where the approach is to simply hammer away from the gun to the tape essentially at lactate threshold for the entire race, hanging on by a thread to the finish.  You can’t go all out in the 5-miler, it is very similar to the approach for the 10K or 6.2 mile race where a solid start, strong middle and finishing kick are the recipe for success.

The Thundercloud course complicates things even further as it packs in some of the steepest climbs on our downtown race courses into just 5 miles.  The course starts on the 1st Street Bridge and after only 400 meters or so heads straight up Lavaca to 15th street.  15 blocks of steady climbing.

A left turn on Enfield (15th) – takes runners up and down the steep hills featured on the Austin Half-Marathon Course.  Some of the steepest hills in the city both up and down.

Then a downhill stretch along the frontage road of loop one before runners make the left turn onto Cesar Chavez and finish the race much like the Run for the Water 10-miler with a bit of a twist.  Instead of finishing on the bridge the runners must run the length of the 1st street bridge, then make a hard right turn onto Auditorium Shores and finish in front of the Long Center.  The same finish line for the SI Labs Marathon relay or the Austin Triathlon.

The course covers roads that I have traveled numerous times, cobbling together parts of the Austin Marathon, Austin half-Marathon, Run for the Water and SI Labs Marathon Relay – but never all in one race.  I have a loose game-plan for Thursday rolling around in my head right now – but like any first time race I am going to have to run this one by feel for the most part and lock in with a group of runners that I feel are of similar talent.

We typically fare well on hilly courses and with the temperature climbing over the next two days – estimated at 65 degrees at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday for the later race start, it is not going to be an “easy” day out there.  I like where we are right now however from a training perspective.  I am not sure that we will lay down a “low time” on Thursday, sub 30 minutes or anything like that.  But compared to other runners in our age group – I expect to perform well.

Thursday is one of my favorite days of the year.  I already have the stuffing ready to go, the meatballs and escarole cooked for the Italian Wedding Soup and all that is left is the turkey, mashed potatoes, mushrooms and cranberry sauce.  We are going to start the day with a great event, and with a couple of days off this week to prepare, we should be able to put together a solid effort.

This is going to serve as our first test of the training cycle to evaluate things and see if we have our speed and endurance where we want them to be on the road to Houston and our attempt at punching through that 3 hour marathon barrier.  Test #2 will come on December 7th on a Friday night running in the Lights of Love 5K for the Ronald McDonald house.  18:15-18:20 will be the magic number there.

The final test will be a week later at the Shiner Beer Run Half-Marathon where if the course measures correctly in the first running of the event, we will be gunning for something around 1:24:15-1:24:30.

If we are able to hit those marks we will be ready to rumble down in Houston.

Three races to serve as strong indicators as to our readiness for battle on January 13th.  It all starts on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

Boom goes the dynamite.

This week marks essentially the half-way point in our preparations for Houston.  The final two weeks leading up to race day will be dedicated to a gradual taper of mileage and intensity allowing all of the effects from a tough training cycle to manifest themselves on race day and deliver the most prepared marathoner that we have ever been to the starting line outside of Minute Maid Park.

After our third run in 24 hours on Wednesday morning we are now 6 1/2 weeks into our training plan with 6 1/2 weeks left before the taper.

Halfway home.

But just like the marathon, the halfway point in your training isn’t so easy to discern.  On race day reaching the “half-way” point of 13.1 miles is the midpoint of the race in distance only.  The second “half” of the marathon really starts at mile 20.  Everything up to that point has been an exercise in restraint and constant monitoring of your machine.  You want to be sure to leave just enough left in the tank to cover the final 6 miles, 385 yards to the finish line.  Anything “extra” that you have at that point has been wasted.  There are no extra credit points in the marathon – only the distance and the time on the clock.  Two absolutes.  Two measures.  How far and how fast.

When it comes to marathon training there are is also a mythical “half-way” point.  You count the number of weeks to race day, divide it in half and “Wala” – there you have it.

Except the reality of the situation is that the first few weeks of a marathon training cycle are no different for me than my every day training regimen.  I run a 5-day run week, mileage somewhere around 45 miles or so and gradually ramp things up from there.

But now, 6 1/2 weeks later I am approaching my peak mileage of the training cycle.

17 miles on Tuesday.

11 miles on Wednesday.

10 miles of hill work on Thursday.

11 miles on Saturday.

21 miles on Sunday.

70 total miles of running, 23 of those miles at marathon goal pace or better.

For the first time preparing for a marathon we will be running about 1/4 of our total mileage at marathon goal pace (6:52) or faster.  In the past I have relied on the various races that I have sprinkled into my training plan to provide for the miles I would run down in the low to mid 6:00 minute per mile range.  With the adrenaline of race day, other runners pushing pace and a bib pinned to our shorts – efforts on those days have been automatic.  Some days I have raced better than others, but whether the race produced a PR or not – always, the race provided me with a workout that I would not have been able to post on my own running along a darkened trail by myself, headlamp lighting the way.

But this cycle, I see those races as icing on the cake as I am pushing myself to do the heavy lifting on my own.  Marathon goal pace mile after marathon goal pace mile on those same darkened streets and trails.  Tuesday’s two runs featured 8.5 mile workouts with 7 miles at Marathon Goal Pace or better just 11 hours apart.

Morning Workout:  Warm-up mile 8:07 then 7 goal pace miles in:  6:47, 6:45, 6:46, 6:50, 6:43, 6:36, 6:41.  Cool down 1/2 mile 7:21 pace.

Afternoon Workout:  Warm-up mile 7:18 then 7 goal pace miles in:  6:48, 6:50, 6:46, 6:45, 6:49, 6:45, 6:41.  Cool down 1/2 mile 7:19 pace.

17 miles with 14 at/below Marathon Goal Pace is definitely something that will pay dividends on race day.  The p.m. workout, bouncing back on tired legs to hold pace has been especially encouraging as I switch over to my heavy trainers and run the goal miles along the crushed granite trail instead of the harder road surface where I run my morning workout.   This allows for a little bit extra cushioning for the afternoon run, but also makes holding pace a bit more challenging.

Switching from 7.8 ounce shoes to 9.9 ounce shoes does not seem like it would make a big difference, but it in fact accounts for :02 seconds per mile.  Add in the softer surface, which does not allow for a strong toe-off and you are looking at another :02-:03 seconds a mile.  Those :05 seconds of “increased difficulty” take the second run to another level on Tuesdays, much like our hill repeat session on Thursday morning which is designed to stress our muscles to the point where adaptation is a forced by-product.

Akin to the baseball player who swings a heavy bat with a doughnut on it before he steps into the batters box with his now “lighter” bat in his hands to help catch up to the fastball – for the marathoner chasing a time goal – logging marathon goal pace miles on fatigued legs will allow that same pace on race day to feel “easy” at least for a little while until the length of the race and depleted energy levels start to force the issue in the last 1/3 of the race.

The goal in Houston is to not start “working” until mile 18 and at that point dig in for the stretch between mile 19 and 24.  Those 5 miles are going to tell the story on race day as if we can make it to the start of mile 25 on pace I like our chances.  At that point it is all a battle of will and “want to” – and I will put our want to up against basically anyone elses.

With 8 1/2 weeks until race day and 6 1/2 weeks until the taper we are in an enviable position.  We learned a valuable lesson on Sunday and will be taking nothing for granted the rest of the way.

By the time we get to the starting line in Houston we will have covered 866 miles, 207 of which will have been put down at 6:52 pace or faster.

We’ll just need 26.2 more of them on race day.  I’m starting to really like our chances.

 

 

Last week was a 67-mile training week featuring 6 runs spread over 5 run days including 4 quality workouts.

Two 8.5 mile runs on Tuesday with 10 of the 17 miles at Marathon Goal Pace (MGP) or better.  Thursday’s hill repeat session and 10 miles on Saturday morning with the middle 5 at or below Marathon Goal Pace (6:52).

Those four workouts were really the bread and butter of the week accounting for 37 of the 67 total miles.

On Wednesday we ran an easy 10 at recovery pace and then on Sunday we had our second 20-miler of the training cycle.  Only 4 long runs over 20 miles remain before we strap on our race flats and go toe to toe with the marathon down in Houston for the 10th time.

Training all week went according to plan, I crushed my quality days and as I hit the driveway on Saturday morning all that remained was a nice long run to wrap up the week.  I then made a rookie mistake, my first one of the training cycle.

I took something for granted.

I underestimated how challenging a 20-mile training run can be at the end of a hard week of training.  Throughout the day on Saturday I didn’t really pay attention to how much I hydrated, what I ate or how much time I spent on my feet.  I went about my business as usual, played with Landry and Saturday evening Dawn and I went out to eat.

Instead of making sure I fueled properly, we went to a new Seafood restaurant, where I had some salmon, steamed white rice and asparagus.  I did not bother to pick up a bagel to eat on Sunday morning before I left for my run knowing we did not have any at the house.  I didn’t pack any gels with me for my run and I decided I would drink at the water fountains along the way, no reason to bring my hydra-belt with me.  I’ve done a ton of these runs I thought …

The temperature at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday was already 68 degrees with 88% humidity.  18 mile an hour winds were blowing from the South as a cold front would be arriving late Sunday night dropping temperatures on Monday morning all the way down to 44.

I thought about pushing my run to Monday as I will be off from work the next three weeks, but instead, I again decided that the run was really no big deal.  Just 2 hours and 40 minutes or so of running relaxed.

As I settled into the first mile I knew it was going to be a long morning.  My legs were still sore from the mileage earlier in the week and took until the middle of mile two before they loosened up.  I had to push hard into the wind to keep pace under 8:00 min./mile and on the miles where the wind was at my back the heat and humidity was stifling.

I ran the standard 8-mile out and back loop that I run on Tuesdays, then ran on to the trail and headed due south into the wind to the furthest point of my route from home which would take me out to mile 14.  Then I would just have 6 miles home.

The miles ticked by slowly and by mile 13 I really felt out of gas.  My pace was holding steady, but my shorts were soaked through, sweat squished in my shoes with every stride and I was working much, much harder than I felt like I needed to in order to tick off 7:50’s.

The last 5 miles felt much like the final 5 miles of the marathon.  Heavy legs, depleted energy stores and all you want to do is get to the end.

As I popped out of the trail I hit the 20-mile mark 1/2 mile from home.   Instead of tacking on another 1/2 mile I decided to walk through the back of the property and up through the green belt to the house.  Put a fork in me, I was done.

As I went through the back gate and out to the driveway to retrieve my water bottle I had left for me to get a drink from at mile 8 Dawn and Landry were in the driveway watching for me to come down the street at the end of my run.

I still brought the run in on my target time.  2 hours 38 minutes and 23 seconds vs. my planned 2 hours and 40 minutes – but it was a humbling run.  It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as it served as a great reminder that none of this is easy.  Certainly race day down in Houston is not going to be.

I need to remember that “training” is just part of this.  It is also important for me over these next 9 weeks to dial-in my nutrition.  Make sure I fuel properly and I treat every workout seriously.  There are no layups when it comes to a 20-mile run at the end of close to a 70-mile training week spread over only 5 run days.

This week we stretch things out just a little bit further to 70 miles and a 21-miler on Sunday.  We won’t be making the same mistake we made this week as we are going to get our rest, run easy on our easy days, hard on our hard days and treat Sunday like a dress rehearsal for race day.

Fueling strategy, hydration, electrolyte replacement – all things we need to dial in for Houston.  We have 4 more runs like this to get it right.  The marathon sent us a message on Sunday.  It is going to be waiting for us on race day with no sympathy, no special treatment and no mercy.

Make no mistake.  We will be ready.

A couple of years ago I was “talking running” with a friend of mine when the subject turned to the marathon.  Specifically what pace you should train at vs. the pace you plan to race at.  I had not yet had my breakthrough marathon at that point which would come on a day with terribly difficult conditions at the Austin Marathon in February of 2011.  A day where finish times were effected by 8:00 minutes or more due to the heat, humidity and winds busting between 18 and 20 miles an hour.

I PR’d by almost 3 minutes.

I would take another 7 minutes off of that time in New York the following November, but in a lot of respects, February 13, 2011 was the day I stopped “running” marathons and started “racing” them.

Racing a marathon and by that I mean covering the distance as close as possible to the fastest your body will allow you to do so – leaving no extra time on the clock by being conservative, essentially running the marathon like any other distance.  Pushing it out there on the course to the point that when you reach the final mile your tank is on “E”.  Then it is a matter of willing yourself to cover another 5,280 feet on nothing but determination and will.

The more my friend Steve and I talked the more clear the message was becoming in my mind.  If you want to race fast, you have to train fast.

To bring your best on race day you cannot simply log mile after mile a minute or 90 seconds slower than your marathon goal pace and then hope that on race day something magical happens.  That somehow the two-week taper period or three-weeks for some runners, will all of a sudden turn your cadence and rhythm from running 7:45’s in training to 6:52’s on race day.  It just doesn’t work that way.

It was during my ramp up to Austin that I came to embrace the fact that racing shorter distance events, up to the half-marathon is a key element of a successful marathon training cycle.

For the Austin Marathon my planning was done for me as I participated in the Austin Distance Challenge.  A 5 race series that included a 10K, 10-Miler, 2 half-marathons and the Austin Marathon.

In preparing for New York City last year I ran three 10K races and the Denver Half-Marathon prior to the marathon.

For Boston it was the Ragnar ultra-marathon relay and three half-marathons.

During each of these marathon training cycles I would set PR’s in the 10K and half-marathon distances – mid-cycle – preparing and training for a marathon.

The method to the madness is that during weeks that would otherwise be “cut-back” weeks, where I would be reducing mileage from say 65-70 miles down to 50, I will throw in a race that weekend and lay down an effort with an intensity that cannot be matched alone on the Brushy Creek Trail at 5:00 a.m. by myself.

It takes the pageantry of race day, the presence of other athletes to push you in order to dig deep and run close to the ragged edge.

Racing a half-marathon at 6:22-6:25 pace is a workout that pays huge dividends during the marathon where your goal is to stretch that performance out from 13.1 miles to 26.2 at a pace only :30 slower.

Your body remembers the half-marathon pace, or the 10K race at 6:02 pace that you ran two months earlier and knows what it means to work hard when your legs are going away from you and are screaming for you to stop.

That is exactly what you will need to draw on late in the marathon – where over the final 10 kilometers everything hurts and all you want to do is be done.  Backing off the slightest bit of effort at that point is the difference between a PR and perhaps reaching your “A” goal or fading badly and losing a minute a mile over the last 5-miles of the race.

Part of the gains coming from racing during your marathon training are fitness related to the workout(s), but just as much – and just as important – are the mental benefits from those shorter races at your threshold pace.

As my friend put it rather simply.  “If you want to race fast, you have to train fast.”
Upcoming Race Schedule on the road to the Houston Marathon:

Nov. 22:  Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot 5-Miler

Dec. 2:  MADD Jingle Bell Run 5K

Dec. 7:  Lights of Love 5K Benefitting Ronald McDonald House

Dec. 16: Shiner Beer Run Half Marathon – Shiner, TX

January 13:  Chevron Houston Marathon – Houston TX – Boom goes the dynamite.

So, here we are 10 weeks away from our date with the Chevron Houston Marathon on January 13, 2013.  After running two marathons in 2012, we will be crossing our only marathon this year off of our race list only two-weeks into the new year.  For the first time in I can’t even remember how long I have no race plans after Houston.

Usually at this point, 10-weeks away from an “A” race, I already have an inkling as to where we will be headed next.  Heading into Pittsburgh in 2009 it was Boston in 2010.  After running Boston and Pittsburgh back to back for Dom in 2010, it was Austin in 2011.  Austin became New York, New York became Boston again and Boston of course became Houston.

But now, after a few tune-up races over the next two months – The Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day, the Lights of Love 5K December 7 and the Shiner Half Marathon on December 16th – there really is only one race remaining and one goal.

Houston.

Sub 3.

Nothing else is remotely on my mind.  No distractions, no fallback plans, no place to go after we pick up the pieces if we don’t make it.

For the first-time when it comes to the marathon I have pushed all my chips to the center, stood up and stepped back from the table.

All in.

As of today there are only 56 runs remaining and a little more than 560 miles of roads, trails and race courses between us and the starting line in Houston.  A lot of the heavy lifting was done this summer as we were training for our first half-ironman.  When I look ahead at the workouts, mileage and balance of the training plan that remains I feel confused at times.

I am running more mileage than I ever have before preparing for a marathon.  I am running more individual miles at race pace (6:52) or faster, a little more than 22% of my miles so far, and I continue to hit my pace marks time after time after time.  I have five 20-23 mile training runs spread out over the next 8 weeks of Sundays and none of them have me the least bit nervous or concerned.

I am running my hard days hard, my easy days easy and maintaining my body the best way that I know how.

Beginning next week I will have a nice 3-week break from work to finish out November as I will be transitioning to a new job – another rather fortuitous circumstance as I will be pushing hard these next three weeks breaking things down to build them back up in December, then taper into race day down in Houston looking to run the race of our life.  Those next three weeks are a blessing.

My race shoes, a gift from my Mother and Father-in Law hit the front step of the house Tuesday morning.  Aside from determining what clothes are going to match the weather on race day the best, our plans for race weekend are finalized.  Hotel, transportation, pre-race dinner – all boxes that have been checked off.

My race strategy is locked in to memory and I am fully committed.

First mile no faster than 6:58.

Half-way point in 1:28:30.

Run with your head through 20 miles.

Run with your heart to the finish.

I can’t remember a race where I was more calm and confident this far out from the starting line.  Usually I spend a lot of time analyzing every run, how I felt, how my pace was, am I getting faster, getting slower, is my goal the right one, am I good enough, do I want it badly enough.

This time around, all of those questions have answers and those answers tell me that I am ready.

56 more times between now and January 13th I need to concentrate, keep my focus and do the work.  That is all that is left to do which is a pretty great spot to be in right now during the meat of our training progam.

New York City served a great reminder to me this past weekend when the race was cancelled for the very first time since it began in 1970.  Things happen when it comes to the marathon.  Most of them out of your control, and most of them not in your favor.  Obsessing about them, including the weather, the course, other runners – it is all just wasted energy.  I’ve done it in the past and I am steadfastly refusing to do so this time.

I am going to focus on the things that I can control and do my very best to prepare for every challenge I am going to face on the race course.

The things I cannot control, I am going to leave up to the other 13,000 marathoners on race day to worry about.  They can do the worrying for me.

10,800 seconds are all I have to work with down in Houston.  Each one of them as precious as any other.  Sounds like a lot of time when you think about it that way.  I hope it is enough because at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure we’re going to need just about every one of them.

On to Houston.