Marathon Homestretch

by Adam Reger

Over the weekend, I put in my longest training run: 20 miles. It was a good, good feeling to hit the showers after that one, knowing I’d reached the pinnacle and my running would now begin slacking off in preparation for race day, November 21. After the rough, dehydrating experience of running 18 miles the previous Sunday, I was smart enough to bring two little bottles of water with me, plus a packet of GU Energy Gel. It made all the difference in the world. As much as I’d like to think I’m tough enough to go without, the difference between absorbing no calories during a long run and taking in 90 calories is substantial. (An aside re: GU: the gel, while restorative during runs, is kind of gross. Decidedly awesome, on the other hand, are GU Chomps, which taste and go down the gullet like the fruit snacks I so loved as a boy.) And the difference between being totally dried out after a run and being pretty dried out, but not completely, is maybe even more notable. My legs were sore, and I was obliged to take a nap, but I did not feel as drained and just overall zonked out, the way I often do after these long runs. I’d thought those feelings were just inherent to running 14+ miles in one go, but apparently I could have avoided some of these lost Sunday afternoons had I but planned a bit better.

All that is sort of a prelude to say that I faked myself out somewhat and the real pinnacle of my training came last night. Thursday-night runs have slowly been ramping up throughout training, from 5 to 6, etc., and jumping up to 10 last week. I think I knew this already, but last night’s run was also a 10-miler. It sounds like a piece of cake, if one has recently conquered a 20-miler.

Not so. While stretching to go out on the run, I recognized it as what football cognoscenti call a “trap game.” I’d just had an emotional victory with the 20-mile run and now here I was, looking past the less imposing 10 miler. It was raining out, and I identified some achiness in my feet and ankles. At one point I peeled off my socks and threw them in the laundry bin, and returned my long-sleeved shirt to the closet. Got to be conservative, I thought. No dumb risks now, so close to the race. (As a probably unnecessary background note, a couple years ago I was training for the Drakewell Marathon in Titusville, PA (near Erie)—and in pretty deep, mind you; I’d just completed an 18-miler—when I rolled my ankle and had to shut it down.)

The ten-miler wasn’t so much tough as it was disagreeable and boring. I only had about forty minutes of light left, so I had to abandon the wooded trail at Schenley Park (which is probably my favorite place to run, if we’re not including stretches of Pittsburgh roads; it’s a safe and secluded 2-mile loop that has yet to get monotonous, even after years of running it) and do .6-mile loops on the Park’s upper gravel trail. A light rain was falling the whole time. After a certain point, true enough, I did enter a kind of zone where I lost track of the tedium of it all. But doing ten loops gets boring no matter what kind of zone you are in. I periodically floated the notion of hanging it up after 6 miles, 7—invoking the earlier suggestion that I not press my luck and risk injury by overdoing it.

I’m pleased to report that I hung in there and did the entire 10. But I am the sorer for it. These last few runs seem to have a cumulative effect on my body: I also felt rundown after Tuesday’s 5-miler (which came two days after the 20).

All of which only brings to light the real value of tapering: rest is the main thing, but I’ve found that getting to your peak running form, then forcing yourself to slow it down, creates a kind of hunger for doing those long runs that serves you well when it’s finally time to cross the starting line.

BONUS: Two marathon-related links in the news today, thanks to the New York City Marathon on Sunday:

1) Yahoo! presents a surprising piece on celebrities who have done marathons. I am deeply bummed to learn that my hoped-for time at the Philly Marathon is about what Sarah Palin ran, and that it may be another few marathons before I can beat George W. Bush.

Also, 2) The New Yorker has a typically fascinating and informative story about American marathon coach Alberto Salazar and his attempts to remake the running form of runner Dathan Ritzenhein, an American runner who had collegiate success before hitting a competitive wall (that wall being composed of his own body’s limitations but also a bunch of Kenyans and Ethiopians). It should be of interest to anyone passingly curious about the work that world-class athletes put in, and fascinating to runners. Jennifer Kahn, the writer, does a great job describing biomechanics, which is the kind of thing that might be fascinating to you if it’s your own biomechanics under discussion, but which otherwise can be very, very dull to read about.

Morale-killing snatch from this article: Ritzenhein’s workout one morning that Kahn went to watch “. . . began with a ten-mile run on grass at an easy pace of six minutes a mile . . .” Granted, this is like my being depressed that an NFL prospect can bench 350 and I can’t, but still. I was thrilled to have done my last long run at an 8 1/2-minute-mile pace.