When I start a marathon training cycle the first few weeks as the mileage starts to increase and quality workouts start to come with a little bit greater frequency and intensity level, I find myself thinking mostly about the actual training.
How many weeks until my long run reaches 18 miles? The distance where I start to consider my weekly “long run” as actually “long”. Until that point, I can usually muster up 14-15-16 miles without too much trouble. But when I get to 18 it starts to feel real, as I know 20, 21 and 22 are not too far down the road.
After a few runs crack 20 miles my mind starts to wander a bit further forward and the first thoughts of race day start to form. With 8 weeks to go, which is where we find ourselves right now, I look back on the first few weeks of training and remember how much optimism I had for the upcoming 20 weeks.
I start to think more about “racing” and less about “training”. It is a subtle switch, but one that seems to happen naturally. Knowing that the final 2 weeks of marathon training is dedicated to tapering for the race, and even the last long run three weeks out will be dialed back to cover only 16 miles – serving as a dress rehearsal for race day, more than a training run. There really isn’t a lot of time left to put the finishing touches on the training cycle.
21 miles this past weekend, a step back week, Then we reach our peak training volume capping things at 75 miles per week with a couple more 21-22 milers. Maybe 23 if I feel frisky, after which we’ll start to rein it all back in.
By this time I have my race shoes in the closet, just waiting to break them in on that final 16 miler, wearing the clothes I hope to race in that day if the weather goes as planned. I will have reviewed the race course over, over and over. I can visualize the hills, the water stops, the turns even down to the smallest detail being what side of the start area I want to line up on depending on if the first turn on the course is a left or a right.
The one thing I try not to think about however is how much it is going to hurt. Because in every marathon I have ever run, fast or slow, PR or not, Boston time or no Boston time – they have all hurt. It is not a matter of if. It is simply a matter of when.
In other races whether they are a 5K, 8K, 10K, Half Marathon or even last summer’s half-ironman when the real pain comes you are close enough to the finish that the thought of how much longer you have to go doesn’t break your spirit. It simply becomes a test of wills. Can your desire to keep pushing defeat your body’s desire to back off? It could be a mile or two, or in the case of the half-marathon those first thoughts creep into my mind right around the 10 mile mark. I tell myself there is just 5K to go, and I ask myself the same question as always, “how badly do you want this today?”
But the marathon is a different animal. The first hints of pain start to arrive around mile 17 or 18. Up until that point if things are going well for me, I have been able to run free and strong. Form feels good, my splits are solid and if I haven’t done anything stupid to this point – I am right where I need to be.
But then it begins. A tightness on the outside of my hips is usually the first sign. Then I will start to feel it in my quadriceps, hamstrings and knees.
The pounding continues.
My feet are usually the next source of pain until it simply hurts all over. The feeling of strength, power and invincibility that was emanating from legs that feel like springs a little more than 2 hours earlier is now replaced by a mixture of pain, exhaustion and questions about how much you have left and how much you can afford to meter out so that at the end of the race, you simply are out of gas.
Unlike the other race distances, you may have more than 7 miles to go before you finish. Longer than many recreational runnners will cover in a single run …. ever. But to the marathoner, this is when the race finally begins. Everything else is just prelude.
I read a quote earlier this weekend that struck a chord with me:
“The Race always hurts. Expect it to hurt. You don’t train so that it doesn’t hurt. You train so you can tolerate it”.
To me, that sums up what is beautiful about the marathon.
In the coming weeks I look forward to the remaining tests. The tough intervals, the long tempo runs with the training group and my final three 20+ mile long runs.
No matter how much work I put in, it will never been enough to push the pain completely to the side on race day. All it will do is perhaps delay it long enough so that I will have just enough tolerance for that pain to get me all the way to the finish line.
In a lot of ways, the marathon is a 25 mile race, Because once you are into that final full mile – fast or slow, it hurts just the same. It becomes a question of how smart a race you ran over the opening half of the course, as one minute too fast in the first half will cost you two minutes on the back half.
1:28:30 – 1:31:00. Those are the two half-marathons we are hoping to run on September 14th.
My last three half-marthons have been consecutive PR’s in 1:24:06, 1:23:55, 1:23:31.
The question is can I put two perfect half’s together on the same day? Can I be disciplined to run the first 20 miles of the race with my head, the final 6.2 miles with my heart?
In two months we’ll find out. And if I had any doubt whether or not it was going to be different this time, Sunday’s 21 mile run with 4:00 minute long pickups over the last 7 miles at paces of 6:36, 6:41, 6:41, 6:36, 6:46 reminded me just how hard things are going to get late in the race on September 14th.
No matter what happens from here on out with our training – there is one certainty. If I am serious about wanting to break 3 hours on race day, I’m going to have to be willing to hurt to do it.