Posts Tagged ‘New York City Marathon Training’

My approach to training for the NYC Marathon was very similar to my ramp up to Austin this past February.  I felt as if the balance of endurance training delivered through longer runs on Wednesdays and true long runs each Sunday with speed work through racing and hill repeats struck the proper balance.

I worked on varying my pace on Tempo runs and recovery runs kept my legs working hard but relatively “fresh” for my key workouts.

The one change I felt was necessary however was with respect to the marathon taper period.  Traditionally I had followed the generally accepted principle that the taper period should last 3 weeks from the final long (20+ mile) run leading up to race day.

Each week during the taper the total weekly mileage is cut down from 100% of your maximum mileage the week of your final long run down to 75% two weeks out, 50% one week before the race and then 25% during race week.

I have to preface my next statement by saying that every runner is different.  What might work well for one athlete does not deliver the same results for another.  Popular running plans are designed for the masses.  They are trying to address the needs of thousands and thousands of runners who have different experience levels, time in the sport, injury history as well as goals and aspirations.

It is tough to address all of those individual areas with a “one size fits all” approach.

The primary goal of any marathon training plan should be to deliver a well-trained athlete to the starting line, but even more importantly should be to deliver a healthy one.  The taper period allows the athlete to “rebound” from a  tough training cycle and recover before a max-effort performance in the marathon, but it does just as much good by allowing the nicks, bumps and bruises that accumulate over the course of 18-20 weeks time to heal.

As I reflected on my races in Pittsburgh, Boston and Austin I felt as if I had peaked about a week too early with a three-week taper.  Two weeks after my final long run I felt super-strong on my final 10-12 mile run one week before the marathon.

My legs felt strong, my turnover felt smooth and easy and I was chomping at the bit to race.

One week later I felt a little bit “stale” for lack of a better term.  My legs were a bit heavier, I had gained a couple of pounds that I was lugging around due to the decreased mileage and I feel that I would have been better off racing a week earlier.

So for New York I decided to shorten my taper period to just 14 days.  I removed essentially the “first week” of the traditional taper where mileage is reduced to just 75% of a runner’s peak mileage.

I simply cut my mileage to 50% during the first week of the taper, then 25% leading up to race day.  This added a 5th 20-22 mile long run to my training period which was another added benefit to the revised schedule, but I hoped that the major improvement would come on race morning.  I was hoping to feel very refreshed but not so far removed from my final endurance workout.

Like any “test” it is hard to measure the impact of a change in strategy or approach if you have more than one variable at work.

In a true test, I would have run identical mileage and workouts throughout the training cycle and only changed the taper period.  I of course did not do that as I also increased my mileage over the course of the training cycle by 8-10%.

That said, I can only go on the way my final shake-out run the morning before the marathon felt as well as the race itself.  Simply put, the two-week taper period won out hands down.

As I left my hotel to run up to the finish line in Central Park my legs felt simply tremendous.  I ran smooth and easy without feeling like I was working hard or pushing the least bit.  The 2.3 mile run came in right at 7:10 min./mile pace.

My pace over the course of the marathon the following day:  7:11 min./mile pace.

The result was a new Marathon PR by just under 7:00 minutes in a time of 3:08:09 on a challenging course.

As I put the finishing touches on my training plan for the 116th Boston Marathon this April I will continue to tweak the balance of my long runs, tempo workouts, hill repeats and pace workouts.

One change I will not be making however will be to my taper period. 

Two weeks appears to be the right balance between recovery and preparation for this marathoner.  In about 4 weeks we will begin our next cycle for our next and more than likely final dance with the marathon in Boston, changing over full-time to chase our triathlon dreams and aspirations.

This spring at Boston I plan on going out in style.

Marathoning takes a lot of self-discipline, of that there is no question.

Whether it is making sure that you eat right and take care of your body’s increased and changing needs, making it out the door in otherwise horrible weather conditions or just simply sticking to that plan on your refrigerator door and knocking out workout after workout no matter how much you would like to stay in bed.

The marathon in a way is about stubbornness.  Our bodies are not meant to run 26.2 miles.  That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact – otherwise we would be configured in such a way that we could store enough fuel to cover that distance.

The act of training for the marathon is one of perseverance and coping skills.  You are teaching your body to function differently than intended as well as convincing your mind to carry on when the natural responses are telling it to slow down and conserve its energy sources.  Not giving in and continuing forward puts the “challenge” in the marathon.  It is one of the things I think of first when I meet a new runner and they tell me that they have completed a marathon.

Automatically I realize that we have a shared experience.  They have been to the same edge that I have been to and they didn’t let the race defeat them.  In a word, they are stubborn – just like I am.

What I have come to realize over the course of training for my last two marathons is that it is equally important, perhaps more important, to remain somewhat flexible in your approach to your training program as it is to blindly tick off workout after workout never asking yourself if this is the right thing to do “today”.

There are sure to be workouts that show up on your carefully crafted 18-week marathon training schedule that was put together 2-3 months earlier that simply do not fit the bill for that particular morning.  A tempo workout scheduled 10 weeks in advance may or may not be the best idea coming off of a particularly hard long run the previous Sunday or a day in which you feel a sore throat coming or have a lingering cough. 

Now I would not be completely honest if I said that there were never days when I simply “cowboy up” and run the scheduled workout as planned no matter how I am feeling.  Yes, there are times when I know that the hill repeat session I have on tap for that morning is going to be a tough workout, but I know I can get through it – and because it fell on a day when I was not feeling 100% – it may just do me even more good in my training than it otherwise would have.

That’s the part where stubbornness can be an asset.

But there are other times when you simply need to exercise some caution, move some things around and decide that moving that Tempo workout up in the schedule so you can run it on your home course before a work trip makes sense.  Or shifting hill repeats up two days so that you can recover in time for that 10K that you decided to race as a tune-up on Saturday.

These are the choices that help you get the most out of your training cycle – and just because Hal Higdon, Pete Pfitzinger or Jack Daniels says,“11 miles with 5 at goal pace on Wednesday morning”, that does not mean that you can’t take some creative license with your training plan and make some adjustments.  It is YOUR race afterall.  Take ownership in the preparation for that race so that when you toe the line at the start of that marathon, you know in your heart that you did all that you could to prepare the best that you could for that race on that day.

Today I begin my taper for New York and I thought it was a good opportunity to look back at my original training plan that I created back in June and compared it to the actual mileage, workouts and races I completed on my way to the starting line in New York.  For the most part I stuck to my schedule, hit my workouts when I had them outlined and stayed the course.  But there were a few changes that I made mid-stream so to speak that I think made a good training cycle a great one.

1.  I raced more.

I added an open water swim/run the week before my first triathlon to gain some open water, swim in a crowd experience.  It was invaluable even though it required me to reduce my morning run from 8.3 miles that day to 6.2 miles and race 1.9 miles that night.

The week of my triathlon I decided to skip my Thursday run and instead bike and swim.  It reduced my run mileage by 8 miles that week, but the 15 mile bike and 2,250 meter swim made me more confident for race day that weekend.

I added a Labor Day 10K running on a Triathlon Relay Team at this year’s Austin Triathlon.  It increased my run days that week from 5 to 6, so I decided to run long on Friday morning and shorter on Saturday so I could take Sunday off to get ready for the race.  My mileage stayed the same, but I changed the order of the two workouts to make sure I was ready to give a quality workout on a Monday – a typical rest day for me.

I decided to race the IBM Uptown Classic one week before the Denver Half-Marathon, meaning I would have three straight race weekends in the middle of marathon training instead of 2 in three weeks as I had originally planned.  It resulted in a new 10K PR at IBM and a great confidence boost leading up to New York.  It was in fact the best technical race I have ever run.

2.  I Added Mileage.

Because I was going to be racing three straight weekends in late September – early October, I decided to add 16 mile long runs on Tuesday morning after the SI Labs Marathon Relay and the IBM Uptown Classic.  Both races were 6.2 mile events held on a Sunday where I would have normally had 18 mile and 20 mile long runs scheduled.

By adding two 16 milers instead of a typical 8.3 mile Tuesday workout – I was able to keep my mileage up and not “peak” too early – protecting my actual taper period where a reduction in mileage will allow my legs to snap back and have a lot of bounce for race day in New York.

I also “tacked one on” here and there throughout the course of my marathon training cycle making a scheduled 16 miler in fact 17 miles or a mid-week medium long run 12 miles instead of 11.  I did this judiciously, making sure they were not after a particularly hard workout the previous day, but I did this fairly often, increasing my daily mileage totals.

3.  I skipped a workout when needed.

A lot of experts will tell you that if you are able to run 90% of your scheduled workouts you are going to be just fine for race day.  That a nagging injury, soreness or illness will invariably rear their head at some point during your training cycle and that you are better off just skipping that workout than trying to run through it.  Even worse is the idea that you “owe” that workout to the training cycle and you should go out and run it on an off-day or combining it with another “easy” workout.

Missed training days are simply missed days.  It is smarter and better for you to just take the extra rest day and move on with your schedule.

Through Sunday I had 89 runs or races scheduled and I was able to make 88 of them.

On Thursday, July 14th I had been fighting a cold and had a slight fever.  By missing my workout I would have back to back days off combining Thursday with my Friday rest day.  Skipping the workout and getting some extra sleep was the exact right call.  I rebounded quicker than I would have otherwise and ran my scheduled 8 miler on Saturday and my 17 miler on Sunday.

In the grand scheme of things those 8.3 miles I missed on the 14th of July amount to a single speck of sand on a beach.  I am no worse for wear and in fact I may have jeopardized even more workouts by trying to push through the onset of illness.

So when all is said and done we will have run 96 out of 97 workouts if things go according to plan over these last two weeks amounting to 948.35 miles.  Compared to our original training schedule – that is an increase of 8.11%.

Actual NYC Mileage compared to scheduled

But even now I am still listening to my body and making adjustments.  Normally on Tuesdays I would run an 8.3 mile recovery run after yesterday’s final 20 miler.  But given the fact I am only tapering for two weeks instead of a traditional 3, I am going to reduce each run this week by 2 full miles, making tomorrow morning’s 8.3 mile easy run an even easier 6.2 mile loop.

I am going to run by feel, leave my watch on the counter in the kitchen and in fact, I may not wear my GPS watch again until my Saturday shake-out run prior to the Marathon on Sunday.  All the work is done.  Now it’s time to get my body and mind right and prepare to be one stubborn son of a gun on November 6th.  I’m not going to cede a single inch on race day – just strap myself in and fight for every second.

I only have 10,800 of them after I cross the starting mat in New York City to make my goal time.  I’m going to need every one of them.

With race day now just a little more than two weeks away I am starting my transition from the physical preparation to the mental.

Most marathoners, especially multiple marathoners will tell you that the race itself while a physical test becomes more about your mental abilities to push through to the finish of the race than anything else.  You will hear people make statements that “the marathon is 20% physical, 80% mental” or “the first 20 miles are just a warm-up until the actual race starts”.

If you haven’t been there to experience it, these comments seem to be rather flippant or an exaggeration of what it is like to really “race” a marathon.  But for those of us who have been there, we just nod along silently and remember our own battle with the 26 mile 385 yard challenge that is the marathon and think to ourselves, “Yep, he’s got it right.”

In an effort to underscore what the race can really be like I have my final weekend of long work ahead, 10 miles at a relaxed pace Saturday morning followed up by a 20-mile long run on Sunday.  30 miles in 24 hours has to be a tougher challenge than just 26.2 in one day doesn’t it?

Not even close.

It really is those final 6.2 miles that make all the difference.  Your energy or the amount of fuel that your body can carry is depleted after about 2,500 calories.  If you have your pacing wrong or the temperature is too high or the winds too strong or the hills too steep, you run out of gas before the finish line.  You have to time it all just right and on top of that have that particular Sunday out of all the Sunday’s of the year be “your day”.

It can happen – and it results in a personal best, a Boston Time or maybe even a sub 3 hour marathon.

But it can also NOT come together perfectly for you and the only thoughts going through your mind at that point in the race is hanging on to the finish.  Whether it occurs with 4 miles, 6 miles or 8 miles to go, they feel like the longest miles you have ever run in your life.

So with all but the final pitchfork of hay already in the barn my focus has shifted a bit from the physical to the mental.

I have thought back a lot on my most disappointing marathon – Boston 2010 and revisited some of the things that I feel contributed to my less than optimum performance.

The physical things that I have been able to control have already been addressed in changes to my training.  I got lured into thinking  I could prepare for Boston on just 4 days of running a week coming back from my shin injury.  For me, the volume of mileage I ran simply was not enough.  All the cross training in the world did not make up for those missing miles.  My mileage now sits in the high 50’s up to 65 miles a week over 5 run days – leaps and bounds above where I was heading into Boston.

I was weak on the hills in Boston, now the hillier runs and races have become a strength of mine due to countless Thursday morning hill repeat sessions.

Race pace workouts, which I never included during marathon training have now become a large part of my preparation.  Racing at 10K pace or half-marathon pace during a marathon training cycle adds many miles run in the 6:00 minute to 6:35 minute per mile range that were never part of my previous training periods. 

I have been able to not only get stronger through increased volume, but faster by “racing” more and recruiting more fast twitch muscles to help me late in the marathon to hold pace.

So physically – we’ve done just about all that we can do to get ready for race day while being careful to stay healthy, injury free and most importantly make it to the starting line feeling 100%.

The final physical adaptation that I will focus on starting next week is to move my workouts to 9:40 a.m.

I am an early morning – very early morning by some definitions – runner.  Typically I am out the door for my weekday runs by 5:15 a.m. and my weekend long runs by 4:45.  That helps me beat the high temperatures and sun here training in Austin, but it more importantly allows me time to get back before Landry and Dawn are up and at ’em.  I don’t want to be missing out on things while I hammer away on the trail system behind our home.

But the late start time in Boston – 10:00 a.m. EST definitely contributed to my struggles on race day.  Even my 22-mile long runs are FINISHED before 8:00 a.m., starting a marathon two hours later and racing up past lunch time had my fuel needs and resources all out of whack.

Beginning next week I will run at “race time” to get my body in synch with what I am going to be doing on November 6th.  I will eat before my runs, something I never do outside of race morning – and get my body-clock in tune with that race clock.

Then finally I will start eating for race day.  Lots of lean meats, proteins, vegetables and fruits over the final 10-12 days of preparation and cut back a bit on my carbohydrate intake as I will be drastically reducing my mileage over the final two weeks to race day.

I will more than likely put on between 1 and 2 lbs. of weight in the final week+ before New York, weight and strength I will need over the final 10 kilometers, but not so much weight that I will feel heavy and sluggish as I lock in on pace and tick off the opening 12-15 miles.

Beginning on Saturday morning I will carry a water bottle with me everywhere that I go up until the race start on Staten Island hydrating fully prior to race day and then have one solid carbohydrate laden pasta and seafood pre-race dinner Saturday night to top off my tank and get ready to rumble.

George Santayana who is often misquoted said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it”.

Each of my first 6 marathons have all taught me something.  Simply put, they have taught me what I believe I am capable of and what I am truly capable of.  They have also shown me just how much I am willing to sacrifice to blur the two lines on race day.

16 days to go.  This one is going to be special.

I’ve started to view marathon training as a bank account or better yet, an investment portfolio.

With an eye toward the future you make your daily and weekly deposits.  Sometimes those deposits are large, other times they are small.  There are times when making that deposit feels great, sometimes they hurt just a bit. 

You do it because you know that down the line there is going to be a payoff.  When you need it most those deposits are going to have built upon one another and “matured”.  When you go to make that withdrawal, you will be amazed at just how much all those individual contributions have grown.

Sunday was our final large, tough deposit.

With three weeks left until the gun fires on the Verrazzano Bridge signaling the start of the 2011 New York City Marathon I went out and ran every single hill I could find for 22 miles.

I searched them out like I was looking for punishment because in a way, I was.

Sunday's Elevation Profile

After last weekend’s half-marathon in Denver I dove right back into the peak week of our training plan, 8.3 miles on Tuesday, 12 miles of hills on Wednesday, 10X Hill Repeats on Thursday for another 10.2 miles a 12-mile hilly run on Saturday and then with less than 24 hours rest our final 22-mile long run of the training plan.

With an extra tenth of a mile here, two-tenths of a mile there we totaled 65.09 miles for the week, climbing 1,956 feet of hills, burning up 7,024 calories running for 8 hours, 11 minutes and 3 seconds.  All 5-day run week records.

But Sunday’s workout was special, just like all of the final long-runs of marathon training cycles past.  I take this one particular run very seriously, make sure that I eat well the night before, take my energy gels every 5-miles just like I plan to do on race day and drink water on every even mile, Gatorade at mile 5, 11, 15, 19 and 21.  On Marathon day we’ll take one last 100 Calorie dose of our Clif Shot Bloks at mile 24 and drink as needed through to the finish.

The last thing I want to do on race day is experiment with new socks, new shoes or a new hydration and nutrition plan.  Nothing new on race day is possibly the best “marathon rule” that there is.  Sunday’s run was essentially a dress rehearsal.  The only differences were my heavy training shoes on my feet and my own water supply strapped into my hydrabelt.  Everything else was exactly as it will be in three weeks in New York.

As I ticked off the miles on Sunday I reflected on the last 17 weeks.  All of those runs that took place in the hottest conditions I can remember here in Austin.  Socks squishing in my running shoes by mile 8 or 9, I would continue to fight on, knowing that while those training runs were not a whole lot of fun, they were making me stronger.

I thought about Dawn and how lucky I am that she gets me.  She understands what this race means to me as I now have just two chances left at New York City and Boston this April to slay the dragon which is a sub-3 hour marathon.

After these next two races I am going to redefine what running is for me, find new goals to chase, but ones that allow me to have more time to spend with my family and not be out on Sunday morning at 4:45 a.m. looking for every single hill along a 22-mile run.  There will be other dreams to chase after Boston – they will just be different dreams, with a little smiley faced daughter who has taken up making pig noises as her latest past-time ….

But I digress.

When I passed the house and switched out my water bottles on Sunday at mile 16 I had two choices to make.  I could run the 6-mile loop that would take me downhill over mile 20 and drop me back onto the trail with 2 flat miles to go or I could circle back around and take on the hill up and over the dam and around the lake.  It would add more climbing to my run, but I would be able to lap the lake one more time where all of this seemed to begin a couple of years ago when I decided to run those two marathons back to back for Dom.

The choice wasn’t difficult.  It wasn’t really a choice even.  I just powered up the hill out of the neighborhood and made the left turn into Water’s Edge like I had hundreds and hundreds of times.  I powered up and over the dam, lapped the lake and ran my two fastest miles of the morning over miles 21 and 22 back to the house at 7:25 and 7:17 pace.

I took stock at the start of mile 22 and asked myself if I had 4 more miles in me if I needed them.  Without a doubt I thought, I’ve got 4 more in me.

Whatever it takes.

I powered up the last hill and hit the driveway at 22.22 miles.

It was a perfect punctuation to this training cycle.  Next weekend I’ll play it by ear a bit.  If I feel rested I might run another 20-miler just to cap things off.  If I’m still nicked up, I may cut it short to 16-18 miles and start tapering things up a bit.

But three weeks from now in New York City in what will be the largest footrace I have ever taken part in – I know exactly what I need to do.  Simply put:

Whatever it takes.

 

 

I’ve had this post marinating in my not yet quite to the taper yet marathon training brain for a couple of days now.  Which is to say, it has been rolling around up there getting only bits and pieces of attention and focus as I find myself so easily distracted at this stage of training.

It seems like my mind wanders from moment to moment – thinking about my upcoming 22 miler on Sunday, then the next minute on breakfast, Landry’s swim lesson yesterday, the fact I have to cut the grass this afternoon, where we put the bag in the attic with the artificial pumpkins to decorate our lamp post area, did I remember to shut off the light in the garage this morning, Doh – conference call at 10!

See what I mean.

I’m not sure if it is the excitement building as New York is now the “next” race on my calendar or if it is something else, but I have to admit that since I started incorporating more racing into my 18-week marathon training plans, I find that it is easier to not have to think about the last race on the schedule so much. 

Looking back during the first week of training for New York, July 4th week, we had our final Wednesday night 5K race in the Sunstroke Summer Stampede Series.  Then it was our first open water swim and run event at the Pure Austin Splash and Dash two weeks later.

On my birthday it was our first Triathlon – July 31st.  My first event after turning 44.  Even if I was only a year older by a few hours.

In August it was the Jaylie.org 5K – racing for a young girl who is battling brain cancer, just like my mother.

September arrived and it was the Austin Triathlon relay on Labor Day and then finally the last three weeks of hard racing:

SI Labs Marathon Relay, IBM Uptown Classic, Denver Half Marathon.

Each of those events served a purpose as they allowed me to run 40.9 miles at race intensity.  Those 40 miles had they been part of  my “traditional” training runs would have been done at a much lower intensity and not nearly as tough of a workout.  Yes, racing takes a lot out of you, but if your goal is to “run faster” and not just “run farther”, I think they are a key component to improving your finish times from the 5K to the marathon.

Which brings me full circle to the post that has been marinating for the last 48 hours or so.

As a 44-year-old runner who is still chasing time goals and PR’s I am in a difficult position.  The reality is that I do not have 10 years ahead of me to get faster.  Can I improve as a runner?  Absolutely.  I feel like I am still learning all the time and I continue to find new ways to challenge myself.   But the finish line clock tracks Father Time just as much as it does race performance, and the reality is that the day that I am “slower” is approaching a lot faster than I would hope.

One of the reasons I decided to run the IBM Uptown Classic this year just one week before the Denver Half-Marathon was so I could take an honest look at where I was as a runner in 2011 vs. 2010.  I wanted to race on the same course at the same event with the same goal (PR) to see how the 2011 version of me stacked up with the 2010 version.

I dressed the same for the event and set out to keep as many things “identical” as I could.  I wore essentially the same race flats from Brooks, just a new pair of T7 Racers instad of the T6’s I ran in back in October of 2010 and I left my iPod at home this year – but other than that – same runner, just a year older.

The race conditions even cooperated as the temperature on October 2, 2011 was only 1 degree cooler (59) than October 17, 2010 (60) for the two races.

The other major change was the race in 2010 marked the end of my Summer Race Season, where I ran a ton of shorter, fast events to get ready to kick off my marathon training for Austin, which began the day after IBM.  In a sense, the 2010 IBM Uptown Classic was my “end of summer” – it was the day before we started preparing for our next marathon.

In 2011, IBM arrived in week 12 of marathon training, with three 20-22 mile training runs in the books – I was better trained perhaps, but I also had three months of heavy mileage on my legs – not exactly a recipe for a fast 10 Kilometer race.

Results?

2010:  38:06

2011:  37:30

As I was making my way to the finish line over the final 2/10 of a mile I was frankly surprised when I caught a glimpse of the finish line clock and I saw it still ticking in the low 37 minute range.  Any PR is a great race by definition and at this stage in my life and running “career”, I will take every one of them as they come and cherish them.  The reality is, my next PR may very well be my last.

Right now with New York City just 3 weeks and 2 days away I continue to look at the runner who stares at me every morning from the mirror and try to take stock in where we are.  Why was I able to take :36 off of my 10K time at IBM?  What did my 1:26:33 half marathon at altitude in Denver mean for New York City 4 weeks later?  Am I stronger and faster or am I at the same point I was heading into Austin last February?

Instead of fixating on numbers and mile splits I decided to take a different approach and I compared race photos from the last two IBM Uptown Classics.  Same course, same photographer, same runner, same location, even the same shorts – only 351 days apart.

Below is the shot from the last 2/10 of a mile in the race in 2010.

2010 IBM Uptown Classic

Here is the same point of the course in 2011.

2011 IBM Uptown Classic

On first glance the photos above appear very similar, but upon closer inspection there are some distinct differences.  By looking at the next frame from the race in 2010, my strides are in synch and they reveal some changes.

2011 Left vs. 2010 Right

In the 2011 photo on the left if you look at my head position and posture you can see I am a much better balanced runner.  I have my hips tucked underneath me and I am tall and strong through to the finish line.  In 2010 my form is starting to go away from me a bit and my head is slightly tilted to the right.

I am much stronger on my plant foot in 2011 and have a stronger lean to the finish.

By going to the “film” it is apparent that all of the training miles and racing have indeed paid off.  We are in a better position at this point in 2011 than we were one year ago.  The only unknown is what that will mean on race day in New York.

A picture really is worth 1,000 words.  In this case, 1,203.

Sunday’s Denver Half-Marathon marked a significant point in our preparations for New York in 4 weeks.  It was the third consecutive weekend of racing, while continuing to pile up the training miles at the same time.

Each race served more as a “tough workout” on the way to the starting line in NYC, but I did try to stay focused on each of the events and race them true and honest.  Not only was it important to push it out there and try to lock in at 10K pace and half-marathon pace – but it would also allow me to take a look back on my performance in the events and determine what I might need to tweak just a bit over the next two weeks of training, before my taper.

Traditionally I have used a three-week taper leading up to a marathon.  Last year in Austin I felt like I was a little “stale” on race weekend and would have preferred to run the race a week earlier.  I came to the conclusion that a two-week taper period is what I would incorporate into my preparation for New York – but there was a part of me who wanted to see how well my legs rebounded in Denver for another high-intensity race – this one at altitude – so close to last weekend’s IBM uptown Classic.

Which brings us to the other variable at Denver – racing at 5,200 feet above sea level – something I had never done before.  There have been a lot of studies conducted trying to measure the effect that the altitude has on race performance.  I purposely held off on researching the topic before the race on Sunday as I didn’t want it to get into my head.

Nothing worse than negative thoughts on race day.  If I was in fact slower in Denver, I wanted it to be because of a physical reason, not a psychosomatic response to negative thoughts and energy.

I decided that I would run this race essentially as a “no-look” half-marathon, where I locked in at my race pace and kept the needle steady over the hilly half-marathon course.  I would only glance at my splits when I heard the beep at the end of each half-mile to gauge how I was holding up, but I did not try to hold a particular pace half-mile after half-mile.

This was a bit of a departure from my previous half-marathons and marathons, but a strategy I felt was wise given that Denver was not an “A” race – it was just another stop on the train to NYC.  A test really.  One that hopefully would point towards a positive jumping off point entering our final phase of training.

Saturday:  The weather turned truly nasty on Saturday as the race approached.  Rain and winds came into the Denver area with temperatures dropping into the mid 30’s.  Some areas just outside of downtown Denver, and of course the surrounding mountains received their first snow fall of the year.

In the city it was cold, raw and wet.

Saturday morning at 6:55 a.m. (race time on Sunday) – My sister-in-law Kim and I drove up to Cheesman Park to run what would turn out to be mile 11-12 of the half-marathon course the following day.  This part of the course featured the longest climb and the highest elevation on the course.  It would literally be “all down hill” from this point and I wanted to be able to run that part of the course and have it filed away in my memory bank for race day.

The 2-mile shakeout only lasted 13:43 – but it was enough to be out there in the rain and wind.  It had been a long time since I had run in those conditions and I definitely haven’t been missing anything. 

It was pretty brutal.

If the rain and wind moved out like the meteorologists were predicting however, it might just be a pretty close to perfect race day on Sunday.

Pre-Race:  On Sunday morning I woke up a little over two hours prior to the starting gun.  Same routine as always, brush the teeth, get geared up and I had my breakfast of an Einstein’s Pretzel Bagel and a banana.  Washed it down with an Orange Gatorade and had a few sips of Diet Dr. Pepper to get some caffeine into the system.

Breakfast of champions.

I threw on my throw away sweats that I purchased to leave at the starting area just before the gun, which would be collected and given to the local homeless shelter.

The weather turned out to be just about perfect.  Maybe two or three degrees cooler than I would have liked, but there was no rain, calm winds (6 mph~) and temperatures hovering right around 39 degrees.

I decided to dress in shorts, my brooks singlet, Moeben arm sleeves, light gloves and a long-sleeve technical shirt over top.  I pinned my bib to my shorts so I could toss my long sleeve shirt to Dawn, Landry and the rest of my family when I passed them at the mile 2.5 mark.  If for some reason I didn’t see them on the course, I would just drop my shirt and move on without it.

Warm-Up:  After dropping off my bag at gear check and getting Kim settled for her first half-marathon, I made my way over to the starting corral.  They started to rope off the corrals, so I ducked out and ran a quick ½ mile warm-up at a slow pace, just to get the blood flowing in my legs.  My legs felt a little more fatigued than they had the week before running my warm-up at the IBM Uptown Classic, which was understandable.  But all things considered, I felt pretty “runnerish”.

I ducked back into Corral 1 – just behind the elite runners and found a spot in the middle of the area, perhaps 100 runners or so in front of me.  It was a wave start, so we would be going off at the gun right after the wheel chair athletes.

I ditched my sweats, took a final sip of Gatorade as I heard hydration and electrolyte replacement was even more important at altitude and ditched my knit cap at the end of the Star Spangled Banner.

Timing Chip – Check.

Garmin – Check.

Nod to the sky for Dom – Check.

Go Time.

The Start:  At the sound of the gun we were off and I tucked in behind a group of runners so I would not be tempted to go out too fast over the first downhill mile.  The course would gradually descend for the first full mile, roll flat over mile two and then start a three-mile long climb from the end of mile 2 up to mile 5.

I wanted to run something in the 6:20 range to open things up, then settle in and let the topography of the course determine my middle splits.  The pace seemed to be coming to me nice and easy and as the sun started to peak over the buildings in Downtown Denver – we were 1 mile in to our final race before New York City.

As we hit the flat section over mile two my pace was rock solid even with identical ½ mile splits.  We made a few turns around the Pepsi Center Area – really my only complaint about the course was the number of turns and tight turns, there were even three cone 180 turns along the way – pretty unheard of these days for an urban half-marathon.

As we hit the first climb of the course at mile two we started making our way towards the Rockies stadium.  At the 2.5 mile mark I pulled off my top layer and balled it up into my right hand.  We passed by the second Band playing and I knew I would either see Dawn and the gang in the next 3/10 of a mile or not at all.

After a few hundred meters I saw the front wheel of Landry’s stroller sticking out from a small crowd huddled together and got ready for the greet and flip.  I tossed my shirt, gave a quick wink of the eye to everyone and made a right turn back uphill towards mile 3.

Approaching Dawn to toss my shirt on the way by

The opening section of the race had gone according to plan, I was settling in nicely, but had another couple of miles to go before we would catch a break with the topography.

The opening of the race started with miles of:

6:17, 6:25, 6:32

Three down, 10.1 to go.

The Second Quarter:  We started to pick up some crowd support at this point of the course and when we clicked over the fourth mile I could feel the hills and the altitude start to take their first bites out of me.

It appeared to me that the altitude was not necessarily making me feel like I was “working harder”, I felt like I normally would at half-marathon pace, but my time seemed to be about :10 per mile slower than my effort.

The other factor I was noticing was that after cresting a hill it was taking me longer to fully “recover” and regain my breathing rhythm and cadence.  It would come back to me, but not within 300-400 meters as usual.  It seemed to be taking 600-800 meters until I was able to settle back in.  All great training I thought as I approached the climb up 17th street, for the first time I started to think about the Queensboro Bridge in New York City, and not the street rising up in front of me in Denver.

We made it to the top of the hill at mile 5 and I grabbed a splash of water at the water stop.  My plan was to hydrate at every stop along the way until we reached mile 10, then I would decide if I needed to continue on with that strategy.

I was hoping that by mile 10 I would be feeling fine and could run with my breathing uninterrupted over the final 5 Kilometers.  Hydrate early and fully, race hard to the end.

At the top of mile 5 we finally got to enjoy a little bit of a downhill stretch.  Instead of pushing the pace, I decided to regain control of the race, lock in and stay smooth.  Not quite to the half-way point, it was too early to really push the envelope.

Miles 4, 5 and 6 came in at:

6:41, 6:43, 6:30

Needed higher speed film to catch me!

The Third Quarter:    At just about every half-marathon and marathon I have ever raced there comes a point when a little voice comes over the speaker system in my head and asks the same question, “how bad do you want this today?”

The real question being asked is, “how much pain are you willing to accept?”

So far the voice had been quiet, but as we started to climb again up to mile 7 as we entered the Zoo and Park area, I knew it wouldn’t be long.

The course was going to be a little difficult in this section, then again from miles 9-11 before things started to tilt back into the favor of the runners heading to the finish.

I started to think about the middle miles in New York, how I just need to disassociate and not read too much into the accumulating soreness or tightening of my muscles.  Just tick ‘em off I kept telling myself, and I decided to focus on the runners around me, who was looking strong, who was running smooth and even.

I picked out a tall runner in a red singlet and black calf sleeves who had been running about :05 ahead of me and locked in.  I would keep him right there until we reached the park.  On that final uphill climb, I would take him.

Miles 7,8 and 9 came in at:

6:37, 6:37, 6:41

The Fourth Quarter:  At the start of mile 10 we reached a part of the course that I had not seen before.  It was an area of one way streets that during my recon drive of the course earlier in the week we had not been able to get a feel for.

The climb up mile 10 was a little bit surprising in how long it was.  It was a gradual climb from 5,250 feet up to 5,350 over a full mile, but it was the first time of the race where I felt like I was slowing.  I just needed to hang tough I thought as I hit the aid station.  Another mile or so and I would be at the top of the race course.

Slowly I was gaining on the tall runner up ahead.  It seemed that for every 10 strides I was picking up 5 feet or so on him.

We turned left into the park and I nudged closer to him, as the road wound its way to the right and the climb got steeper I was on his left shoulder, ten more strides and I pulled in front of him.  Keep pushing it I thought – almost to the top.

Miles 10, 11 and 12 came in at:

6:45, 6:58, 6:34

Time to go:  We made the final turn out of the park and I pulled alongside a young runner who was a member of the US Air Force.  We ran stride for stride for a half-mile and went through the final aid station together.  I decided on just a splash of water as my lips were dry, but not enough to disrupt my breathing.

I fell back into a cadence that matched my opening mile and decided I would lock in there until we made the final left turn to the finish line.  With .25 of a mile to go I would kick.

The mile felt great to be hammering away to the finish.  I held back just a touch on the gas as I wanted to finish the race at a full sprint as this would be the last mile I would run at race effort before we would toe the line in NYC.

The crowd along the course was starting to fill up and there was a lot of encouragement being thrown our way as we pushed to the finish.

I clocked my final full mile in 6:20.  My second fastest mile of the race only falling short of the opening downhill mile of the race by :03 seconds.

I pressed the accelerator one more time over the final tenth of a mile covering it in under :44 seconds.  5:18 pace.  I hit the mat and glanced over at the Race Clock.

1:26:33.

My time would be the 83rd fastest among the 8,909 runners in the half marathon, good for 10thplace in the Male 40-44 Age Group – and one of only two runners in the top 20 who was not from Denver, Boulder or another part of Colorado.

Lone Texan ....

Post Race:  One of the rare times when Dawn and Landry would not be at the finishing area to greet me post-race.  I got my medal, grabbed a water and a heat sheet and made my way over to the gear-check area to get my bag, put on some warm clothes and retrieve my phone.

This was one of the more complicated races logistically, where the mission now as to reunite with family and then try to get back over to the finish area to see Kim wrap up her half-marathon.

Once we had everyone situated in the family reunion area, a few of us headed over to the finishing chute.  I thought that Kim would run somewhere around a 2:20 in her first half and depending on how long it took the race officials to release each of the starting waves, Kim should be coming through the chute around 9:30 a.m.

Sure enough, right as rain, Kim finished her first half-marathon ahead of pace at 2:18:46.  An absolutely tremendous  effort as she ran her race the whole way and finished with a big smile on her face.

The only goal anyone should have in their first long-distance race, whether it is the half-marathon or full marathon is exactly that, to finish happy and healthy.

Congrats Kim!  Pure awesome.

What does it all mean:  I traveled out to Denver in search of some answers as to our capabilities in New York City and came away feeling as confident as ever.  I ran my second fastest half-marathon, besting my time at last year’s Decker Half-Marathon in Austin.

That time was good enough for fourth place in my Age Group, missing out on a third place age group award by a single second.

Anytime I can finish in/around the age group awards in Austin in a major race, I know that I turned in a quality effort.

My Denver time was :12 faster, only my PR of 1:23:55 at the 3M Half-Marathon reigns supreme.

When I visited the Run Works website – which takes into account the altitude where a race has been run and then projects that finish time at various elevations from sea level to 10,000 feet – had I raced at 1,000 feet on Sunday (Austin is 684 feet) as opposed to in excess of 5,200 feet, my race time equivalent would have been 1:23:33 or a :22 second PR.

Jack Daniels (the runner and coach, not the alcohol) is certainly an expert, and who am I to argue with his study – but let’s just say that the altitude slowed me by just two minutes on Sunday, not the 3 minutes he projects – that revised time of 1:24:33 would still put me well in line for a 3 hour marathon in New York if the weather cooperates and I run the race of my life.

Altitude Graded Performance

Over the past two weekends I have posted two performances – in the middle of training – with no taper – that are strong indicators that good things are ahead in New York.

Will I make it?  Nobody really knows, if they did, the New York Road Runners Organization could just mail me my finisher’s medal and post a time for me of 2:59:59 – it just is not that simple when it comes to the marathon.  It is an incredibly difficult race to predict the outcome in.

When I started this training cycle and I went for my very first run of 6.2 miles back on June 21st – the only thing I wanted heading into race day was a clear indicator as to whether I was going to be able to go for it or not that morning in November, standing on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.

I wanted to know one way or the other if I was ready to make a run at a sub 3:00 hour marathon or if I was not quite there.  Not quite good enough.  The worst thing that could happen would be if I remained on the fence.  Unsure of myself and my goals for the day.

There is no room for second-guessing or negative thoughts on Marathon Morning.  You have to decide then and there what your plan is going to be and do your best to execute that plan.  All I wanted was a clear signal:

Yes or No.

Well, even me who has every reason to be the biggest skeptic out there is having a hard time finding a reason “Not” to go for it in New York.

So, here we are – if the weather cooperates – it’s on.

26.2 Miles at 6:52 pace.

As I tore into my race confirmation from the Boston Athletic Association yesterday and saw my acceptance into this Spring’s Boston Marathon it really hit home.  You’re not some back of the packer anymore.

You’ve done the work, put in your miles and worked at this sport as hard as anyone.

November 6th is going to be my day.  It has to be.

2:59:59.

Time to go get ours.

The last two days have been rest days and after picking up my packet at the expo this afternoon all that stands between me and the starting line here in Denver is Saturday morning’s 2-mile shakeout.

My sister in-law Kim and I are going to take a ride in the morning to run the part of the course that will take us to the highest point of the race at mile 11.5 and then start the descent down to the finish line.

After driving the majority of the course yesterday all I can say is that I think it sets up as a very fair race course.

When you think of racing in Denver, CO most would expect large hills and a lot of topographical challenges.   That does not seem to be the case as the course is much, MUCH flatter than the Decker Challenge half-marathon course back home in Austin.

Now, if you’ve run Decker you are probably saying, “Big deal, everything is flatter than Decker …”

O.K., maybe that is true, but the hills the elevation profile of the Denver half-marathon course shows some areas where climbing is required, but there are also some nice long gradual descents that will allow the runners to pick up time, but not worry about “braking” to slow themselves down, and in turn, stress those quad muscles.

It remains to be seen just how much the altitude affects my ability to hold half-marathon pace on Sunday, but right now, with very cool race temperatures forecasted (38-40 at the start) and very little wind, I think it is shaping up to be a fast day for the runners on Sunday.

I will be running on Saturday morning at 6:55 a.m. locally, the same time as the race start on Sunday to dial-in and “dress rehearse” for race day.  The top of the park tomorrow is going to be the point in the race where I start to click the turnover just a bit faster and really try to let it all hang out over the final 1.5 miles.

After reviewing the course map again this afternoon and replaying the mental pictures I took yesterday I have arrived at my race plan.

Miles 1-3 – Relaxed/Controlled ~6:35

Miles 4-7 – Lock it in ~6:30

Miles 8-11.5 – Hang tough ~6:25

Miles 11.5 – Finish – Let it all hang out ~6:20?

So, we’re going to go for the negative split, hard charging strategy and see just how much we can push it down the stretch.

Regardless of my overall time, finishing this race with my hair on fire is what I am looking for in Denver.  It will be the perfect way to wrap up these last three weeks of racing and move into the final 4 weeks of preparations for New York.

I want to feel the wind in my face and my legs churning as my friend Steve Speirs likes to say, “closing like a freight train”.

If you’re on the side of the road over the final mile, be on the lookout for a bright yellow brooks singlet flashing by – it’s going to be quite a final mile on Sunday.