Midway training impressions from a marathon noob
Monday, April 08, 2013
It's been too long since I've posted a blog update, especially since the last one was about a crappy run.
Correction: The last blog was about a difficult run, not a crappy one. It was still a good run, even though it tested me mentally and physically.
The good news is that the 26k blizzard run still stands as my most difficult run ever, which means the last few weeks have been pretty good. We seem to be getting into a typical Calgary 'spring' (ha!) weather pattern here where every second week or so throws some apocalyptic weather at the city. Five weeks ago, it was a 15 cm dump of snow during the run. Three weeks ago, it was the ice wind on the 26k. And then yesterday's long run was 30k of ice rink.
Okay, that's not quite accurate. The first 12k or so was ice rink, and the rest was better. I started out at 7:30 because my group was going to take the train down to the deep south of the city and run home (Calgary is a very loooong city, and the South stretches further than any other direction). I ran into a neighbour of mine in the lobby who leads the walking group at our local Running Room, and he warned me that it was really slippery outside. That was a slight understatement; I walked out the front doors and almost fell on the first step. We've had a nasty ice fog hanging around the last couple days as spring and winter fight each other, and on Saturday night it settled on the ground and froze into a micro layer of ice on the sidewalk that was almost impossible to stand on. I skated myself over to the intersection, very carefully walked across the road, and then managed to find a slightly better sidewalk texture to walk on. I was still slipping and at one point skidded right off the sidewalk and onto the road (luckily, downtown is dead on Sunday mornings). I finally got myself to the next intersection and grabbed onto a pole while I waited for the light - and promptly fell on my ass as I was standing there. And that was just the first block of my little 1k commute to the store *before* the 30k run we were supposed to do that day.
It was better once I made it to the river path, because I was able to run on the grass for most of it. The few people who were out were doing the same thing. I've seriously never seen the sidewalks so slippery, and it was even worse because you couldn't really see the ice. I was starting to wonder if we'd be able to do our little field trip, but the paths down South couldn't have been any worse than the downtown ones and might have been slightly better. So, our group gathered and then shoe-skated a few blocks to the train for a nice ride down to the unexplored (by me, anyway) territory of Fish Creek Park. The ice was just as bad in that part of the city, but the parking lot at least had enough gravel that we were able to get our footing and head out to the park.
For the first hour or so of the run, I hopped between running gingerly on the path (once you got the rhythm of running on the ice it wasn't too bad) and the more secure but uneven grass on the side. I'm definitely feeling my butt this morning, since it had to work that much harder to stabilize my body. The scenery along the way was gorgeous - it was chilly and misty, but peaceful. I hadn't been down to Fish Creek since I was a kid, so it was really nice to cover some new ground. By mid-morning, it had warmed up enough that most of the thin layer of ice had melted, and we could just focus on normal running.
Doing a long point to point was interesting. Overall, I liked it. New scenery aside, there's something motivating about knowing you're on your way home the entire way. It's a little scary to know that there's no way to cut the run short like you can on a loop or an out and back, but that's also good incentive to push towards the finish. It was physically tough with the weather conditions, but mentally the run felt great. Although, I had one little moment around 16-ish kilometers when I glanced over and saw IKEA poking through the trees. We'd been running through parks and residential areas that I was unfamiliar with, so the IKEA was the first landmark I recognized... and in my mind, IKEA is deep, deep south in the city. It was a little shocking to realize that after nearly two hours of running, we were just now hitting a landmark that my brain associated with 'too far away to drive to unless I really, really need a new bookshelf', and I still had to run the rest of the way home.
Distance running can really start to do a number on your perception of distance.
Can I just say that I'm impressed with my city? We followed the Bow River pathway, which snakes along the river and runs mostly parallel to Deerfoot the entire way through the South. Deerfoot is our big ugly freeway, and the route was an interesting mesh of natural park area and heavy industrial zones. Seeing that part of the city from a new perspective almost gave one of the least attractive parts of town its own sense of beauty along the way. Normally, you don't want to look under those giant overpasses or past the junkyards and cement plants, but hidden underneath there's this ribbon of path and river cutting through the ugly and bringing nature with it. For a city that's rated least walkable in Canada (something I forget, since the area I live in is pretty walkable), it's impressive that you can follow the path the entire way. It's not always pretty, but the fact that it's there is comforting.
I'm also really impressed with our clinic instructor, who's been acting as our mobile aid station on our long runs. It was great to see his yellow jacket in distance, waiting at points along the way with water refills, chips and cookies, and lots of encouragement. The Sunday marathon group is big and goes out in multiple pace groups, so it's a great way to check in with everyone as they go past and to make sure we've got what we need when we're running through areas that might not have available water or nutrition options. This part of the training involves a lot of experimentation to figure out how to fuel and hydrate yourself, and experimenting means that you can sometimes get it wrong.
So, that was yesterday. Next week is our 32k run, which is the longest distance we do before the marathon. I was a little uncertain about that at first - the other clinic I ran with last year took their marathon group up to 38k before the race. That makes sense at first glance, since tacking another 4k onto that seems trivial, and there's a big mental boost to knowing you can actually run the distance. 32k still leaves you with another 10k to go, and that's a bigger unknown. At the same time, physically, it makes sense not to push it too far in the training. You're not going to get much physical benefit from those extra six kilometers, and there's an increase in risk associated with it. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself on the 38k a month before the race.
But that still leaves the mental side of things: How will it feel to hit 32k during the marathon, my longest distance up to that point, knowing that there's still another 10k and an hour or so to go? Most people who have hit the wall seem to do it in the mid-30's. The more I think about it, the more I think it'll be okay. Since moving into the longer runs, 10k has started to occupy the same mental space that 5k did when I was half marathon training. The last couple weeks, 'the last 10k' has turned into my home stretch. That's when it kicks in - I pick up my pace slightly, I get a burst of energy, and I know I'm heading home.
The physical side of it is still obviously an unknown factor, but mentally I think I'm there. My brain can run 42 kilometers. Physically - well, the long runs exist to show me that I can run for four hours. It's more about time than the distance itself. Hitting 38k at an LSD pace wouldn't tell me much about how I'm going to feel when I hit 38k at race pace. For that, I'm just going to have to keep going strong with my other training and trust that it'll all come together on race day. My hills are strong. My speedwork is good. My average heartrate has come down by about 10bpm since I started training. I've pushed through mental blocks and put myself on autopilot when I've had to on the really tough runs. Mentally, I'll head into the race knowing that I can run 32 kilometers and also knowing that I can run another ten.
I'm a planner and I like to cover all my bases, which is why leaving things unknown can make me anxious. And no matter how much you train and plan, the experience itself *is* an unknown. Really, the only way to know how you'll run a marathon is to run a marathon. It's a leap - once you've done the first, you can figure out where things went wrong or right on race day and what you can adjust for next time, but for that first you just have to take a deep breath and trust that you can do it. It's actually kind of cool, because you'll never get to approach a race from quite that same mindset again.