On two marathons

After finishing the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon almost an hour later than I was hoping, making another attempt soon was never too far from my mind. I put it off for a while. I completely stopped running between September 2016 and August 2017 other than to do two little 5k races and one 10k — the latter was supposed to be my second marathon but got drastically downgraded.

Eventually, though, I had to get past this, to do better somehow, so on the last day of July I signed up for the 2017 Seattle Marathon. It was scheduled for November 26th, leaving seventeen weeks to train. That works for following the typical marathon training plans — a week longer than we gave ourselves for the TCM.

But training this year was similarly dismal. I started TCM training with a half marathon and started Seattle training with a 10-mile run. I ran 26 training runs each year. They totaled a paltry 241.4 miles before the TCM and 240.2 miles before Seattle. I used a different training plan this time, still torn from the pages of Runner’s World, but my original longest runs of 20, 21 and 22 miles were reduced to a single run of 19.74 miles. Overall, my ten long runs averaged 14.6 miles in length this year versus 15.6 average miles for eleven long runs last year.

To make it worse, my taper this year really fell apart. After the ~20-mile long run, I did two 15-mile runs. From there, 22 days remained until the marathon, and I just stopped running. Other than three miles around the middle school’s track with seven days to go, I did not do much of anything except work. And occasionally I stretched for a while.

The Seattle race falling six weeks later in the year than the TCM pushed the later weeks of training well into short fall days, wet fall weather and two-day weekends instead of a summer schedule of four-day work weeks. I just did not want to run, especially in the shorts and long-sleeve base layer than have been my running uniform for a while now. Knowing I was supposed to be running didn’t help, because I hate being told what to do (even by a non-judgmental page from Runner’s World).

All of these comparisons make my preparation this year look as poor as or worse than last year’s. However, for all but the last few weeks of the season I felt better about my training. The reason, I think, is reflected in these two numbers from each year:

2016 training runs over 17 miles
Average pace: 11:27 min/mile
Average cadence: 161 steps/min

2017 training runs over 17 miles
Average pace: 10:33 min/mile
Average cadence: 170 steps/min

Most of the difference in both pace and cadence is due to walking less in the final miles of long runs this year. That, in great measure, was due to less cramping, which I believe was aided by better nutrition. I emphasized pasta and other carbs for the night or nights before long runs. Instead of relying on an empty stomach that works great for short races, I doubled breakfast before long runs to two English muffins with peanut butter and honey (three before the marathon this year). I used Gu packets only at miles 10, 13, 16, 19, etc., rather than starting each run with Gu drops and eating a steady diet of Gu. I concluded each long run by drinking a large bowl of chicken broth, which seemed to bring water and salt levels back to normal most quickly.

So I felt better, other than knowing I had not been running enough. With no significant time nor will remaining to correct the lack of mileage, I bought a new set of running layers made for colder weather, ran those final three training miles in the new suit and concluded it would work, and took off very nervously for the marathon. My goal of a sub-four-hour finish had long been replaced by the simple goal of running the race I wanted to run: a completed marathon largely free of significant cramping and completely free of unplanned stops, hobbling or otherwise slow walking.

2016 vs 2017 marathon pace
2016 and 2017 marathon pace by mile

The chart above shows this year’s pace in blue over last year’s pace in yellow. My Seattle time was 4:29:02 versus last year’s 4:57:09. Notice all of the complete stopping in the Twin Cities race. Not this year. Other than a bathroom break and stopping to leave gloves with my cheering section, I only slowed my run when it was necessary to walk off leg cramps. I did not stop on the side of the course in fruitless attempts to stretch the cramps out of opposing groups of leg muscles. I instead lengthened my stride and walked or slowly jogged until they loosened.

You can also see in the final mile of each that the tired runner can glimpse the Space Needle (end of Seattle) from a greater distance than he can hear the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral near the end of the TCM. It is amazing how much energy can be summoned and how much pain decreases with the smell of the finish line.

Seattle Marathon cropped.jpg
On the left around mile 17 with an estimated two thirds of the race left to run (more photos)

The marathon

Well, it’s done. Emily and I completed the Twin Cities Marathon a week ago today. I shall attempt to recall the details of the race and the last weeks of training — for the record, and because I am nearly certain to attempt another marathon in the near future.

Trying to stay warm outside the Metrodome-replacing U.S. Bank Stadium.

I completed the race in 4:57:08 (chip time). That was about an hour slower than my stretch goal of getting a 3:__:__ finish time. There were a few reasons for that.

I started the race with a sore right knee. This was an injury that started a year ago during my first half marathon. It’s some sort of swelling inside that did not look bad on an MRI and did not concern the surgeon a couple of months ago when he looked at it. Skiing last winter seemed to help it, and so did getting better running shoes early in my TCM training schedule. What aggravated it was running the hilly Quilcene Oyster Run half marathon pretty aggressively two weeks before the TCM.

Quilcene’s fast, steep downhill on asphalt seemed to make it worse, and I spent the two weeks between the half and the full heating my knee with a rice bag and popping turmeric-and-pepper pills. The final two weeks of my taper involved almost no running. I was hoping it would improve enough to run the TCM and read a lot of unsubstantiated online advice saying rest would be better for me than trying to push ahead with the scheduled tapering runs.

The knee improved, but even my two-mile easy run two days before the TCM made it worse. Early in the marathon, I assumed I would be dropping out before five miles or so. I could feel the familiar swelling, weak, locked-up feeling. However, I knew from previous runs that it seemed to loosen as I ran longer, so I periodically stopped, stretched my knee to free it up, then continued. The first time I had to stretch it was around mile 5.5 at the first sighting of our family cheering section.

The expertly navigating cheering section.
We were always quite happy to see them, except at their last stop before the finish when I was falling apart and could manage only a couple of high-fives as I ran by.

The knee did improve along the way, but as it faded my legs started to cramp. Stretching the knee left my hamstring and calf loose, and they began to cramp horribly whenever I did that. That was manageable by alternately stretching the front and back of my right leg, but the cramping got worse and also affected my left leg.

I had experienced this on long training runs, but those were fueled by Gu packets and very occasional water. I assumed that the ready access to electrolyte drinks during the TCM would eliminate it as an issue, but I assumed incorrectly. I don’t know where I failed on nutrition, because I ate three Gu Roctane packets, drank a cup of Powerade and a cup of water at each water station and also had a Clif energy gel when they were offered mid race. But I definitely failed. I slowed as my legs refused to flex in a normal stride without cramping.

Note the early stretching episodes several miles apart. The cramping started after three hours, and note the long stop and subsequent walking after around four hours.

Around mile 23.5, I stumbled to the curb again, this time aiming for some grass instead of a nice stretching post. My hands, wrists and tongue were numb and stiff — maybe my toes and feet, too, but I can’t quite recall. My legs cramped painfully if I attempted to flex them. I awkwardly lowered myself to the grass and began attempting to stretch one band of muscles without slackening the opposing ones so those cramped. That was pretty impossible, and I began to think of dropping out. But the finish line was so close, and I knew from texts that Emily was close to the finish line. No fucking way are you going to do this again, said I, so no fucking way are you not crossing that finish line. To stay in front of the drop-out bus and get an official finish, I had about 100 minutes left to move myself something less than three miles. I could have crawled and made it, so off I went.

Emily pulled away from me when my cramps got bad, but we passed each other and ran together a few times earlier in the race.

I tried to jog, but the legs wouldn’t do it. Part of that was something physical, but part of it was mental, because I was able to start jogging when I saw the cathedral, heard its bells ringing and saw the giant flag suspended between opposing St. Paul FD and Minneapolis FD tower ladders two blocks before the finish line. Shuffling somewhat awkwardly, I’m sure, I managed to keep running through the finish line.

Couldn’t really avoid finishing once I got this far. Passed that lady, too, I did.

Between the 18.6-mile timing loop and the end, 2012 finishers passed me; I passed only 29 other runners. I fell from 4596th place to 6717th place out of the 8556 eventual finishers. (Another three thousand registered for the race, maybe started it but didn’t finish within the six-hour limit.) Emily did much better, well within the range of when she wanted to finish and about half an hour faster than me.

We both made it! No more marathons necessary (but not really).

The medal was obtained. I scarfed down a cup of soup broth and a couple of packs of Old Dutch chips close to the finish line. A banana, too, I think. I let the phone sit for a minute, strapped to my arm, because I didn’t have a free hand or free energy to text. Eventually I retrieved my warm starting-line clothes from the UPS truck, claimed my finisher’s t-shirt and left the runner’s area to meet Emily and the family. We left pretty quickly in search of beer and food.

With Grandpa Dean, the preeminent and tireless supporter of family athletes.

We ate, we drank, we didn’t throw up — somewhat surprisingly for me, because my longest runs have been followed by a few hours of intense discomfort. Perhaps the water stations were an improvement after all. Now I just need to fix the cramping issue and try it again — as soon as my left foot starts to feel better from its stress fracture or whatever is going on in there.

Or maybe an ultra would be more my speed. They let you stop and eat, and apparently I just need some soup broth and Old Dutch once in a while. Until then, I’m pretty happy with my now complete list of running records in Garmin Connect:


Six weeks until the marathon

[Written Sunday, but the WordPress link to my hosting elsewhere has been really poor lately.]

It’s been a rough month for my training. I don’t run well after work, or after anything really, so working a 4/10 schedule in the summer was rather key to my training plan. I could sneak in a short run after work one day of the week, but long runs on Friday mornings and semi-long runs on Sunday mornings have been the foundation. I like to carb load, go to bed on time, sleep, then eat a banana and a pack of Gu drops and hit the trail.

Spending a month of Thursdays late at the fire hall in volunteer orientation, and increase the daytime temp around here (it’s finally been summery), and I end up running later in the day in the sun, poorly rested and poorly nourished. Or not at all. Saturday’s were spent at the same place.

This doesn’t get you to a marathon: 

Another excuse along the way was a pair of SAR calls involving a fair bit of loaded-down hiking. The first was a couple of weeks ago on a Wednesday — I think it’s the furthest I’ve hiked in a day, got me home late and left me with a sore left Achilles region. The second was this past Wednesday, an overnight with no sleep except maybe dozing off between radio calls a time or two.

I can’t guarantee the latter isn’t going to happen again in the next six weeks, but I’m done with orientation and ready to get back on this. Off-schedule, because I just needed to get in some miles to reassure myself about my condition and my ankle, I did 15.6 today at long-run pace. Friday, it’s back on the long-run schedule, hoping to do my first 20-mile run.

Then it’s back to a half marathon next week, back up to 20 miles the third week, then the tapering down to the Twin Cities Marathon. Assuming no injury, I’m reasonably sure from today’s result that it’ll be okay.

Training for the TC Marathon

Around mile 5 of my long run this morning [Friday, when I wrote this — having WordPress troubles], I said to myself, “Self, training for a marathon is as worthy of being recorded on your blog as is climbing a mountain or sitting on your ass reading books in Pokhara.”

I agreed with myself, because I’m like that and because this might be my sole attempt at a marathon; or maybe I’ll fail and have to try it again; or it will be hell but a few months after the race I’ll forget the hell and consider committing to another. In any of those cases, I’ll want to be able to read a bit of the journey again to remember it, to improve on it or to swear off running forever. Thus, I write.

Emily and I registered to run the Twin Cities Marathon. It’s scheduled for October 9th. That is the same day as the Chicago Marathon, which was Emily’s sentimental favorite for our first run. I tended to agree, not least because I spent a lot of cold marathon mornings and long days being a nerdy ham-radio operator at various medical stations along the route. But we were far too late to register for Chicago, and since October is a more pleasant time than the official holidays to see my family in MN, we diverted to the TC race.

Training began on June 18th with, for me, the running of the summer half marathon, Longest Day of Trails, here in Port Townsend. I had not been training, but I finished within 2 seconds of 2:00. Not my fastest time on a half, but not my slowest and a respectable kickoff to training to double that mileage.

We each came up with a training plan. Emily is following one from a well-timed issue of Runner’s World. The same issue brought our marathon and its coincidental scheduling with our preferred Chicago run to her attention and led her to register us. Her plan came highly recommended by Wild Bill of SAR and Rainier-climbing fame, who took to marathons a few years ago and runs them as regularly and impressively as people I more historically envied consume bottles of fine wine.

My schedule came from that guy who wrote the book on marathon training, the one heavily involved in the Chicago Marathon for years. He publishes a few variations online. I found one that seemed to fit my pre-training race mileage, if not my lackluster weekly training mileage. With a few modifications to fit my work schedule, trips we have planned for the intervening months and shorter races that I could run locally along the way, it got added to my Google calendar, and I try to do what it tells me to do.

That brings me to today, the end of the sixth of sixteen weeks of training. In general, I’ve been adding mileage by increasing my weekly long run by one mile one week, by a second mile the second week, and then dropping that significantly the third week. In between, I do some hills, some intervals and some shorter pace runs — as time allows. I know I should do those more religiously, but I can’t run in the afternoon as well as in the morning with an empty stomach, and I leave for work early and work long days.

Last week’s long run was 17 miles, or 16.98 due to Garmin’s tendency to retroactively knock a couple hundredths off what it tells me on my wrist. This week’s was 18 miles, and next week it drops to 13. They’re all hard, except the first several miles when my heart rate stays low and it feels easy.

Today I made several mistakes, including selecting a hilly midsection of the course to do something more entertaining than last week’s back and forth on a lovely trail that is unfortunately too short for these runs (around 7.3 miles end to end). I also failed to eat enough carbs last night, failed to run early to avoid the recent, sudden onset of summer on the Olympic Peninsula, drank too much water while not processing any of it, and ate an apple from the tree in our yard too late in the morning, just before the run. The apple wasn’t processed either, as became clear when I spent the afternoon stumbling between the couch and the bathroom vomiting everything I tried to consume to refill my tank.

It was my slowest long run to date at around 11 minutes/mile. I walked big sections of it, especially from mile 15.5 back to the car. And I ended up short by four tenths, though that I can blame on a closed trail area and an aggressive owl, though the trailhead signs warned of such. Not my best showing, and I wasted the afternoon in misery instead of stopping by the office to get some quiet Friday work done or grocery shopping. I’m eating and drinking some now, though I’m still four pounds lighter than yesterday.

One positive thing is that I have time. This training schedule has me running 20 miles three times, I think, before tapering down for race day. If I need to repeat the 18-mile run and not get to 20 miles as early, that’s probably okay. My goal in running this marathon is a finish I can enjoy after running with reasonable style. A chip time of 3:something sounds great, but it’s unnecessary and less important than not being miserable.

So, it just can’t be like today’s run. Except the shoes. I went to the closest running store last week and had them fit me for a pair of shoes, which were worth the one-time payment of full list price.