A few things I learned in my failed marathon training attempt.

There’s a lot of stuff they don’t tell you as a neophyte would-be marathon runner.

I think I was a bit overconfident in trying to feel my way through the process. Somehow, I was under the impression that I could find an online plan, blindly follow it, and everything would work out. That clearly didn’t turn out to be the case at all. Things would probably have gone better if I had just tried to seek out some advice from friends of mine, and there are a few, who are veteran marathoners. Pride cometh before a fall, as they say.

So, for this post, I thought I’d look back and try to come up with some clear lessons learned, in order to help myself and maybe anyone else who reads this.

Here we go:

1. Marathon plans involving rigid running schedules and a specific number of miles don’t work for me.

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I felt like absolute shit after I ran my first 40-mile week, and I got hurt shortly after that. In addition to the problems with actually fitting all of the mileage into my schedule, I never felt like there was enough time for me to recover in between runs. The other thing I noticed was that it TOTALLY sucked all the enjoyment out of running for me. It really made me wonder about the concept of “junk miles”. A lot of the training I was doing was probably low quality miles where I was just slogging through and I don’t think it was helping me.

2. I was doing my training runs way too goddamn fast.

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The run I got hurt on was an 18 miler that I tried to do at an 8:15/mile pace because I struggle with running slow enough on long runs. This was a theme in training.

3. Going from being basically a couch potato to being a sub 4:00 marathoner in 6 months is probably not going to work for most people (it didn’t for me).

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Not me. But you get the idea.

I mean, holy crap. I read that sentence above again and I can’t believe I was so naive. I was really buoyed by some encouraging early results when I made the commitment to do a dozen races this year, but I was ignoring the clear fact that a marathon is so far removed from even the 1:40 half marathon I ran in February that it might as well be another sport. Building a base on which I could work toward the marathon should have been the priority, and it wasn’t. As a result, the overuse injuries killed me. The good news is, I have that base now.

4. I probably don’t need to run all that much to be successful, as long as I put in quality work.

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Yeah. This is how I felt sometimes.

I’m not saying I can do a marathon on 20 mile weeks. But consider this: I ran three half marathons this year. My fastest time came when I was “undertrained” and running… uh… 20 mile weeks. To be fair, I did throw runs of 8, 10, and 12 miles in there. The key was I did all my mileage at or near half marathon pace and added speedwork every couple of weeks. Yes, I did feel the lack of work in the second half of the race in Toronto and given my 10K split I should have been faster. But feeling great physically going in really helped.

5. I’m wayyyyyy faster at the shorter distances.

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Again not me. This is from the film “The Fast Runner”, which, apparently, is about a fast runner. I don’t run naked over ice floes. Usually.

My half marathon PR equates to a 21:17 5K, apparently. My real 5K time is almost down to 20:00 flat. I will continue to do a mix of distances, but my podium finishes in the 5K races have me thinking about leaning a little more toward these as opposed to the longer ones.

6. Half marathons are great, people are still impressed when you say you run them, and you can still, like, do stuff with the rest of the day after you finish one.

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Yeah, we know. You a bad bad man.

 

I gotta say the marathoners I saw in Cleveland did not look like they were doing well after finishing. Not that I am disparaging the marathon. I still want to run one. But, if your goal is to seem like a badass, you can probably get away with the shorter distance as long as your friends aren’t ultramarathoners or something.

7. On balance, I really prefer running in Florida in the winter.

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Hey, what do you know. I can reuse the photo.

 

Because, you know, genital nip and stuff. I also ran in San Francisco when I was there which was pleasant weather wise but, wow. Hills.

8. Don’t say you’re going to run a marathon for charity when it’s your first time.

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Yeesh. This was dumb. It’s pretty tough to admit to a bunch of people that have given you money that you can’t physically do the race. They were understanding. But still, don’t do it.

9. I’m still doing the damn marathon. But next time I’m gonna do it right.

It might not be next year, or the year after. But it is going to happen. Mark it down.

Rehab, and a difficult decision.

It’s hard to blog about running when you’re… not running. I kind of feel like this:

The groin strain I’ve had has kept me out of action for a couple of weeks now. Today was the first day I actually got up and felt no discomfort from it at all doing daily activities (although the discomfort had been minimal for about the last week or so it was still obviously there). A test run, however, proved it wasn’t 100% yet and I shut things down after about 10 minutes.

So, a change to the race schedule is definitely necessary. After much deliberating about it, I have decided to push the first marathon back to the fall and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I’m also going to miss the Mercedes-Benz 10K tomorrow in Oakville (I could probably physically run it, but I’m too concerned about reinjury). And I will be trying to change my registration in Cleveland from the marathon to the 10K, so at least I can get something out of the weekend, since Cleveland is not a race that allows deferrals. I could maybe try to run the marathon, but the combination of recent recovery from injury and undertraining is a recipe for disaster, and I just feel like I’m not willing to take the risk at this point.

I’ll be looking for another race to replace Oakville and right now the tentative plan is to do the Rotary Huron Shore 10K Run in Southampton, Ontario which we can do whilst visiting the home folks.

So right now, I’m trying to aggressively rehab my injury with daily cross-training. I’ve been alternating the stationary bike with core strengthening exercises and runners yoga. So far, it seems to be working – things have gotten a lot better in the past week.

I don’t consider my inability to run Cleveland a failure, so much as it is a setback resulting from mistakes in training. Unfortunately, I tried to do too much, too fast. Looking back, the timeline I set involved trying to go from being an overweight couch potato to a sub-4 marathon runner in 8 months, and it was just too aggressive. I do feel rather pleased to have gone from my sedentary status to a 1:40 half marathon runner in less than half a year; that, I think, was a great accomplishment. But I’ve had to face the hard truth that I need more distance running experience (and a lot more core strength and flexibility) before I tackle the marathon. That was a conclusion which wasn’t easy to come to, but it was the correct one.

Going forward, I think I’ll focus on the reasons why I started running again in the first place and try not to get derailed by obsessing over the competitive aspects. And, I intend to have a more comprehensive plan for training for the fall. Until then, I’m just going to bide my time and build my strength as best I can.

Arghh. Repetitive Strain Injuries Suck.

You know, walking around with an icepack strapped to one’s groin is pretty much exactly as fun as it sounds.

This thing seems to be getting a bit worse with each long run I do. And it’s pissing me off. I’ve been finding that I can go back to midweek training after a couple of days, get some short runs in, everything’s OK, then another long run, and:

I kind of like the agonized way the word pain is written in the picture above. And it’s in red too. Seems to fit.

Anyway, I had a real crappy 17.5 miler this weekend. In addition to the aforementioned discomfort in the groinal region (inguinal is the proper term, but I prefer groinal, even though it’s, well, not actually a word) I didn’t hydrate very well and the thing turned into a death march by the end (it was my first long run in above freezing temperatures and apparently I forgot that I sweat while I exercise under normal circumstances). I’m sure I looked like I was trying to chase Rick Grimes down or something. Fortunately no one decided to stick a penknife in my brain in the interest of public safety.

So, now the dilemma. Should I push on, and continue this unfortunate cycle, with the hope that I can nurse the injury enough that I can still get some training volume in and run a relatively fast time after my taper? Or should I hop on the dreaded stationary bike for a couple of weeks, sacrifice training volume, and show up to the line healthy but probably unable to do much other than maybe just break the 4:00 barrier?

I think I’m going to pick door number two, unfortunately. I’ve obviously been overtraining, so I’ll be shutting it down until my next 10k in a couple of weeks. It’s not like I was going to BQ with my first marathon anyway. We shall see how things feel next week, but this is going to limit the number of long runs I can do (it looks like I’m going to have to settle for one 20 miler instead of the three I was planning).

I guess it beats hobbling around like I just got hit with a sledgehammer by Kathy Bates.

Just Finished My First 40 Mile Week of Training. Ow.

So, it turns out 40 miles is a lot of running.

It took me quite a long time to figure out how to fit everything into a reasonable schedule and be able to ramp the mileage up without worrying about work schedules, or getting hurt. One of the problems I had was the sheer number of marathon training plans out there, and trying to pick between them. Pfitzinger. FIRST. Galloway. Jack Daniels (did a double take with this one, obviously). Higdon. BAA. Hanson. And so on.
The opinions for and against these sorts of plans seemed to revolve around a couple of important questions. First, what should be the maximum weekly mileage to aim for prior to tapering? And second, how long should the longest runs be?

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I wasn’t really prepared for the wide variation in answers to these questions proposed by these plans. In terms of the longest run question, the runs varied from 14-16 miles (admittedly, these distances came up in plans designed just to get runners across the finish line, and I’m looking to do a bit better than just finishing) to 29 miles (this in the Galloway plan, which emphasizes intermittent walking with the running and a very slow pace, which was a deal breaker for me, though I know it works for lots of people).

GallowayMarathon

Now, I’m a novice at this. I know that the goal with a first marathon should be to make that finish line with time being de-emphasized, but I’m stubborn. I want to run a sub 4:00, and am shooting for sub 3:45. Based on my race times at shorter distances, the calculators available to estimate my marathon time tended to spit out around a 3:25-3:30 time. This, I knew, was completely unrealistic.

I felt, according to the bulk of what I read, that multiple 20 milers were probably necessary to reach my goal, but more than 20 miles was probably a concern for me given my propensity for inflammatory type injuries and this training distance was probably best left to the elites.

Interestingly, the most scientific approach to marathon time projection I found came not from Runner’s World, or Running Times, or any of the other major sport-specific publications, but… from Slate.com.

It used real world data provided by runners from over 4,000 races in order to more accurately predict the marathon time in particular. The methodology used was sound, and the results seemed a lot more accurate than with other calendars. It solved the weekly mileage question for me too, as training schedules were surveyed, and the runners who logged 50 miles per week prior to tapering performed better than those who did not (the average being 35 miles).

The calculator and methodology can be found here.

So, I am actually doing a sort of hybrid between the intermediate Higdon and the FIRST program, with the mileage coming from the Higdon, but my running pace more similar to the FIRST (I do my long runs at the slowest marathon pace I would be satisfied with, i.e. a 4:00 marathon pace, rather than 60-120 seconds per mile off pace). I also alternate shorter, easier workouts with longer ones, and take back-to-back days off.

Just for illustration, this week’s runs included:
Tuesday: Speedwork – 8 miles total, including warm-up, cool-down, and 5 x 7 minute reps at a 6:45 mile pace.
Wednesday: 5 miles at slightly faster than marathon pace (around 8:20-8:30 mile)
Thursday: 7.5 miles at marathon pace (8:45 mile)
Friday: 3.5 miles at slightly slower than marathon pace (around 9:20 mile)
Today: Long run of 16.3 miles, at slowest marathon pace I’d be happy with (9:10 mile) followed by 2 days off.
Total: 40.3 miles.

As far as injuries are concerned, it’s gotten to the point where I’m basically managing a couple of minor injuries (left groin tendonitis and right medial tibial tendonitis) and trying to keep them from becoming bigger problems, using the same ice, compression, elevation, intermittent rest, and use of anti-inflammatories that I’ve used before. And it seems to be working, although we shall see if this holds when I get up to 50 plus miles in a couple of weeks. Anyway, now I’m off for a couple of days, so at least there’s that.

I’m gonna go eat some cupcakes now.

Canadian Winters (and the Dubious Joys of Running in Them)

Running in cold weather sucks.

I love my country, but with regard to my tolerance for the cold, the place of my birth sometimes seems like a bit of an unhappy accident. Let me be blunt: I hate the snow, I hate the freezing temperatures, I am not a winter sports person, and every day that goes by in the less salubrious months of the calendar here I pray for an end to the frigid horrors (which, I would surmise, makes me not unlike the vast majority of Canadians, if we’re being perfectly honest).

Now, the problem: I had just committed to myself that I was going to run the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon in May, and thus the training, or at least part of it, was going to have to take place in the winter. I therefore had to steel myself for the eventuality of heading out in, shall we say, rather less than perfect conditions.

This, it soon transpired, created a few logistical problems. As a rather extreme and unfortunate example, I had never heard of genital nip before I started seriously running. It is not a comfortable experience. Apparently there are shorts with a special lining designed to ward off just such a circumstance. This is one of the things no one tells you about cold weather exercise. (So, guys – be warned.) Also, it’s difficult to prepare for the effort involved in running when there is deep icy slush on the roads. The first 10 mile run I put in was not only slow, but my hamstrings hurt for days afterward from the effort of just lifting my feet out of the frozen quagmire. Trying to pick one’s way down a road that is a solid sheet of ice is no fun either. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have any serious falls, but I certainly slipped a few times, and again, extra effort is required staying upright that saps one’s energy and resolve.

The alternative, of course, is staying inside on the hamster wheel. This is what I tended to do when the weather got really cold, or the roads were slippery enough that I just didn’t want to bother with them. The running community on the internet has lots of things to say about treadmill running, and just like most things there doesn’t seem to be any consensus about it. The most damning criticism leveled at the treadmill seems to be “it’s not the same as road running.” Well, duh. In January in Canada, it’s a hell of a lot warmer, for one thing. I realize that it’s not a good idea to train for road racing entirely on a treadmill, but I would never do this, or advocate doing it. I have, however, found that mixing treadmill runs in with outdoor ones has allowed me to get mileage in and reduce the amount of wear and tear from repetitive strain, since the impact is much lessened with the cushioning a treadmill provides versus a hard asphalt surface.

I’ve had a few fellow runners who seem to feel this is anathema, and their reasons usually boil down to the following: lack of wind resistance and road surface makes treadmill running too easy (that’s why I mix it up, and I still seem to be able to go pretty fast on my road runs), you run the risk of overstriding during speed workouts and ending up with hip flexor and hamstring pain (funny that, but my hip, hamstring, and shin pain got better when I started using the treadmill), and using a treadmill all the time will screw up your ability to innately find your pace in the road (last 12 miler I did on the road I set 8:15/mile for my goal pace and wound up running within 5-10 seconds of that for every single one of my mile splits – enough said).

As for dealing with the crushing boredom of doing a two-hour run on a treadmill – well, I still haven’t figured out a strategy for that yet. Suggestions are welcome.

We runners are a crazy lot, and I’ve still found myself out there when the weather is insane. I’m not alone. Exhibit A:

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That’s fellow Cambridge Harrier Mitch Free, after one of his competitions this February (photo courtesy George Aitken). All in a day’s work in the Great White North…

Fat Dad Gets Less Fat. With Shin Splints.

Even though I was clearly overweight and hadn’t really done any formal exercise program since high school, I still had this weird notion that I was sort of in shape. After all, I could run 3 miles on the treadmill, right?

(An aside: actually 3 miles turned out to be not 3 miles. My treadmill runs 10% slow for some reason. I discovered this when I tried to run on a hotel treadmill on a business trip and almost got shot off the bloody end of the thing. I figured it was the hotel treadmill that was wrong. Then it happened again, and again, at different locations. Finally, I had to face the truth that mine was wonky.)

When I started to have trouble breathing last summer, I had several investigations done and nobody could find anything wrong. Echo, spirometry tests, CT scans, everything was fine. My doc sent me for a fitness assessment at a local physiotherapy place for completeness sake. On the surface I was all bravado about it, but underneath I think I knew it wasn’t going to go well.

I arrived at the physio clinic and was taken into a back area by a dude who kind of looked like Tony Little without the long, bleach-blond hair. He asked me a few questions, primarily about what my recent activity level had been.

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“Actually, I’m a runner. I run 15-20 miles a week,” I boasted. (Totally not true, by the way, but I guess I must have felt particularly macho that day.)

“Oh, okay. I’m gonna get you to do a 3-minute step test then. You should have no problem with this at all,” said Almost Tony Little.

The 3-minute step test is basically exactly as it sounds. You step up and down on a foot-high bench at a 96 bpm pace. The test is intended to measure how quickly one’s heart rate returns to baseline afterward as an indicator of one’s aerobic fitness level.

“Huh,” said Almost Tony after I finished.

Shit. I didn’t like the sound of that “huh” one little bit.

“Am I scaring you or something? I must be, because your test results are below average,” he went on, rather smugly I thought. So much for machismo.

He then went on to measure my hip-to-waist ratio, and my flexibility, both of which also proved to be subpar. My old corpse seemed to be having a bad day. “We just need to get your lower body a bit stronger. You ought to do some squats,” Almost Tony advised solemnly.

I wished I had a little flag so I could wave it around. Squats, woo-hoo. Fantastic.

“And you know – it wouldn’t hurt to join a yoga class to work on that flexibility. Plus there are other fringe benefits, with the scenery and all.” He winked with both eyes weirdly.

Ummm, yeah. OK. Thanks Almost Tony.

Of course, I never did any squats. Nor did I run out and join any yoga classes with the intent of staring at women’s bottoms. Instead, I went home and railed to Lori about how inaccurate the step test was.

In the end, the breathing problems turned out to be 100% related to anxiety and not to anything physical. And I finally came to grips with the idea that maybe, just maybe, I needed to do something about my slovenly habits.

This was around the beginning of August 2014, and I pledged to myself that I was going to run at least 3 or 4 miles 3-4 times a week. Additionally, I ditched the booze for a whole month. Completely.

By October, I had lost 13 pounds, and the running was a lot easier. Unfortunately, a new problem had emerged. I had never really had issues with shin splints before (probably because one of the advantages of sitting on a couch all the time is that you don’t tend to get them), but suddenly the sharp pains along the sides of my shin bones in both legs had gotten bad enough that they were hampering my ability to go up and down stairs, much less run.

So, it was back to the internet, where I found about 50 different opinions on shin splints. Heel striking causes them. Not heel striking causes them. Weak calf muscles cause them. Overpronation causes them. Run with them wrapped, run with them taped, don’t run with them at all. And so on.

I did find out through a gait analysis that I overpronate (I tend to run slightly splay footed), so I bought some shoes to correct that. It didn’t seem to help much, so I added taping, icing, and elevation, and judicious use of anti-inflammatories to my routine. Eventually I got the pain down to the point where it was manageable. Changing my running schedule to try to avoid doing too much also helped.

The thing that wound up being the magic cure for me was compression stockings. I had a pair that I got as a sample at work and decided to give them a shot one day – and I couldn’t believe the difference they made. I never run without them on now.

Getting the pain in my lower legs dealt with was a huge part of my decision to go ahead with the marathon training. Now all I had to do was actually get started.