Monday, 18 January 2010

Like a marathon virgin...

The start on the night before, not moved into the street.

...touched for the very first time...ok, that's just wrong. But that's how I felt at the Arizona marathon in Phoenix last weekend even though nobody touched me. Why? Well, partly because I wasn't sure I'd finish and partly that it was hugely satisfying despite the time.

It's been a busy last week for me, but pretty much everything's gone to plan. Firstly a job interview and offer down in San Jose. Then my visa to get married got through to the next stage. Thirdly (and not last), my knee/ITB injury which has plagued me since Fukuoka in early December seems to have gone away thanks to the marathon. Then finally I missed out on the lottery for the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc...just as now I get a guaranteed entry for 2011 when I actually want to run it.

I'm not advocating this for anyone else, but several times now I've got rid of niggles by doing a marathon. Admittedly this was more than a niggle and has been pissing me off for almost two months. But it now does seem to have gone away or at least be on the way off my radar, just in time to try to catch up in training for my first 100-miler in three weeks. Ok, it's probably screwed that up too, but at least I have a hope of getting round the course now, even with reduced fitness.

Back to Phoenix. It's a decent enough race and a big one too, with over 30,000 doing the half or full marathon, mainly the former. It also had Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor in the half, but I foolishly missed their talks at the expo.
I had run about 100 miles since early December, which was meant to be about the peak mileage for one week. It also included 31 of those miles at the Bad Ass 50k, which I shouldn't have done, in hindsight (a marathon may cure an injury but an off-road ultra seems to be a bad idea).

The day before the race and after doing no mileage for the previous week and a half, I tried a jog. It's been very frustrating doing just a run or two per week and finding that each time the injury hadn't faded. But this last jog felt a little better although I could still feel the injury beneath the surface.

On race morning I wanted to break three hours since that's over a minute a mile slower than race pace and I guessed I could still manage it. The most likely way to do this was with a positive split as the lack of miles would be bound to make the latter sections much harder than usual. So I went off faster and had to slow down after three miles when my heart rate started to escalate even at a pace which should have been fine. However, the knee didn't even have a twinge. Ideal start, it seemed.

I went through halfway in 1h23m and felt surprisingly good. My thighs were sore and felt like I'd run the whole way downhill, but that must have been just a lack of conditioning. Eating several protein recovery bars the day before may not have been ideal either, but I was hungry and couldn't wait an extra day. The whole time I was waiting for the knee to give way and for the rest of the day to be painful and slow as I walked in the last miles. Instead, I hit a bad wall at about 15 miles and couldn't see how things would improve. I wasn't fit enough to have confidence I could run through it and I didn't want to lose form and damage the knee. So I constantly kept recalculating potential finish times, based on slowing down to 8-min miles or whatever I thought might be sustainable. That three hour target stayed in my mind but I remember thinking that I'd be lucky to break 3h10m (from the point I was at, that would have been 9-min miles to the end).

All this uncertainty made me feel like a novice again. Negative thoughts kept pouring into my mind. "You won't keep up this pace...","You'll be overtaken by everyone you cockily jogged by earlier...","Can't you even finish a MARATHON, ultraboy?!" Not the most fun few miles I've run.

Then I turned a corner, not even the other side of the wall, but breaking a mental barrier. Another voice counter-acted every negative comment. I knew I could beat the fatigue and that I'd done it before. I may be out of shape, but experience counts for something and I just pushed on, speeding up at the same time. After a few miles I did finally come through the wall and now the race became a lot more exciting and fun for me. Instead of everyone around me overtaking as I slowed closer to 7-min mile pace, they were hitting the wall and I was cruising.

My legs were shot and felt worse than in any marathon for a long time, but I was able to start calculating how far below three hours I'd be. And the numbers kept getting lower until I started getting calls from the crowd that I wasn't trying hard enough as I looked too comfortable. I certainly didn't feel it in the legs, but my breathing and heart were relaxed so I could see what they meant. As my confidence grew, the crowds began to get thicker and lots of the runners started slowing, as usual towards the end of the race. I was on a high thanks to the fact my knee hadn't bothered me and that I'd pulled the race round from a disaster to a respectable and satisfying effort.

The first marathon of the year was a huge success. Funny to think that, given I was over 20 mins off what I'd set my sights on back in 2009, but 2h50m on the day and in the circumstances felt like more of a victory than a better time when fit. It reminded me of the satisfaction of completing Prague back in 2005, the longest run I'd ever done to that point. I felt like I'd really accomplished something even though I'd usually take it for granted for a marathon to go to plan.

For all those people on Sunday who were popping their marathon cherry, I'm sure most had similar feelings. At least this time I had no blisters or chaffing to deal with, so I didn't go for the fully authentic experience. Every race I've ever been too has a large percentage who get to achieve something they've never managed before, often something life changing. It's easy to forget that when the races can become almost routine. That's why variety in races is so very important...

...Now a quick tangent...I recently read about Chuck Engle who knocks out marathons between 2h31m and about 2h50m virtually every week. I was hugely impressed that he did 51 sub-three hour marathons in a year and that many were in the 2h30ms. Clearly he's a dedicated marathoner with hardly any injury problems. I even considered trying a sub-three every week for a year before I heard about what he'd done. But it just wouldn't be fun for me (I'm sure it is for him or he'd presumably stop) to do the same every weekend.
Phoenix was a dull course, but fast, so I don't mind a few like that to go for a time. But without races to really get my adrenaline pumping, I'd just give up on running. 2010 will amply satisfy that thanks to Rocky Raccoon 100, Eco Trail de Paris, Two Oceans, Boston, Comrades and Western States...and that's just the stuff I'm really looking forward to in the first half of the year. In fact, just listing those out makes me want to get out the door and run now (it's 11pm and raining).

Anyway, back to my original train of thought (rant). Trying something new is always more exciting, especially if you're not sure you can do it. Mr Adams certainly takes this philosophy to heart by doing the hardest races he can get his hands on, then making them that bit tougher by drinking too much. So I'm hoping that my leap into the world of 100s this year is equally as thrilling and fills me with trepidation. I'm pretty sure it will, but I know it'll be fun finding out.

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