As we were wrapping up our final long run of the training cycle, I was fortunate enough to be logging the final 16 miles of our scheduled 22-miler with my good friend Jim. He of the 2:59:00 marathon finish at last year’s Austin Marathon.
As far as I’m concerned, marathon royalty. Jim has in his back pocket the only PR that I really care about. The only race distance in fact where Jim’s personal best is faster than mine – but to a marathoner, it really is the one that matters most. You can have all the 18:02 5K’s, 37:30 10K’s, 1:23:31 half-marathon times you want, but just as 3:19:59 was once the measuring stick I used to judge whether or not I was a “good runner” trying to qualify for Boston back in 2009, 2:59:59 has become my personal Holy Grail.
21 days away from race day in Houston the two things that can conspire to trip us up on race day are injury and the weather. If we toe the line healthy on January 13th and get a neutral day of say 45-55 degrees and light winds, I am very confident that we are where we need to be to put ourselves in position for success on race day.
The plan on Sunday was to run easy until we were 2 miles from the finish, then run the last two miles “hard” as a fast-finish workout. Jim’s legs, just 14 miles in were of course ready for battle when we reached the two-mile from home mark. Our legs, now 20-miles in were feeling a bit heavy, but at the beep we dropped pace down into the 6:35-6:45 range.
I hung just off of Jim’s left shoulder and ticked them off. The miles felt every bit as challenging as they will feel in three weeks when we race to the finish in downtown Houston screaming for home. When we reached the 22-mile mark the watch clicked over to 2:59:52. The goal of the run was to stay on our feet for 3 hours. An adjustment I made a couple of years ago where running my long runs too fast were actually hurting me. I was only on my feet for 2 hours and 45 minutes or so, then asking my body to race for 20 or 30 minutes longer than that on race day.
The fatigue was palpable and the closing miles even more of a challenge than necessary.
Now with a 3 hour-long run in the books with the final two miles closed out at sub-marathon goal pace, our body and our mind have been there.
We know exactly what it is going to take on January 13th to make it happen.
As usual, these next three weeks are going to be hell from a mental perspective. Some days I will be brimming with confidence, others my legs will feel like concrete and I will wonder if I have the speed to run a single mile at 6:50 pace, let alone 26.2 of them.
Thankfully this is not our first rodeo. In fact it is our 10th. I know that no matter how stressed out I am, how little sleep I get the night before the race or how many nervous trips I take to the porta-potty on race morning once the horn sounds and we cross the timing mat we will fall into pace and our rhythm will feel natural. The opening miles will click over easy, the best we have felt in months.
But this time things are going to be different. In Austin in 2011 I thought we were ready to try to run 3 hours. I woke up to 68 degree temps. and 15-20 mph winds and knew our hopes were dashed before we ever got to the half-way point. In New York 9 months later I thought we were in 3:05 shape and we ran a comfortable 3:08.
Last spring at Boston for the first time I truly believed we were going to do it, only to have 88 degree temps. and no shot at even attempting to race the marathon on race day. We simply ran the course as a training run to stay out of the medical tents.
So what is going to be different this time? What do I know that everyone else doesn’t?
The difference this time is not only our level of fitness and how well we are running and racing, but our level of “want to” is at a point where it has never been before a marathon.
I have no illusions that things are going to be easy down in Houston. In fact, I know exactly how tough things are going to get. I got a taste of it in New York last fall. But having gone through it before has done more to harden my resolve than to create fear and worry.
Just as we did last weekend in Shiner, we can only run the race one mile at a time. Don’t look back, don’t look too far forward, just tick ’em off.
The simplest plans are usually the best ones. When the gun fires, we are going to run a 6:45. At the 10K mark, a 6:45. At the half-way point, a 6:45. When things start to get difficult around mile 17, a 6:45 and just like we did this morning, when all seems lost, our legs feel heavy and we feel like we can’t run another mile at that pace, we’re going to run another 6:45.
As Steve Prefontaine famously said before the 5000 meter final in Munich, “I’d like to work it out so that at the end, it’s a pure guts race. If it is, I’m the only one who can win it.”