10 September 2008

Training the Distance

It’s a ritual. Count the weeks till the marathon. Incrementally extend the length of your long run till you hit that magic twenty miler. Complete the twenty, and congratulations, you’ve graduated, you may pass Go! and the starting line, and chances are you’ll collect your medal (sadly, no $200) 26.21875 miles and several hours later.

Almost every first-time marathoner follows the formula for the simple reason that it works. And then the giant sucking sound commences (we miss ya’ ol’ Ross…), we get pulled into the vortex, and each successive marathon calls for just a little bit more. Sure, being able to complete twenty means you’ll be able to struggle to twenty six. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the last six miles comprise a race unto its own.

The twisted marathoner logic of self-abuse coupled with self-betterment then drives us in two dimensions: distance and reps. Surely if I can survive one twenty miler, doing two will train my body to handle that distance better, putting me in better shape for the final six! Surely, if I can survive longer than twenty in training, that last Dead Zone Six will shrink to a Dead Zone Four, or less! Taken to its logical conclusion, why not eliminate the Dead Zone entirely? Why not train to extend the onset of The Wall to some point beyond the finish line of the marathon? Why not train the distance?

Few do it. Why? My non-scientific view sees two reasons: long-term endurance and fear. For many, completing 26 miles takes a toll on the body that takes too long to heal. Training the distance can, for many, wipe out readiness for the race itself. But bigger than that is fear. Fear of that decimation, whether real or not. Fear of the mystique of the marathon. After all Phidippides died, didn’t he?

Well, yeah, he did, but the rest of the story is that he’d also put in a 200-some mile week. That part tends to get left off or at best, hidden in the footnotes. And let’s face it, the shoes in ancient Greece, well, sucked. No Gu, either. With modern conveniences and a solid conditioning base, we’re not likely to execute a Phidippides face-plant.

I’ve now run seven marathons, and have increased either the number of long runs or the longest run leading up to each one, relative to each previous race. And I’ve improved my time in every race but one (other than the first one, of course). So with number eight approaching, I put in a 24-miler two weeks back, exceeding my previous longest by half a mile. My plan called for one more long one, for a total of five – a pair of 19s, a 21, the 24, and… yes, I wanted to train the distance.

The time came, the weather was perfect, I was a little shy on sleep, but the planets align only now and then. Off I set with a plan to do 24, then, if the moons lined up too, add a few neighborhood loops and train the distance. Just walk out the door, run a marathon, walk back in, and resume normal daily living. No big deal. But, somehow, how odd…

It’s very different doing a marathon solo. No starting line, no crowds, no water stops, no fellow runners (save the pair of Army runners I passed at about the midway mark). It’s an odyssey, passing through six towns in this case, and one of my head games is to identify the extremes, east, west, north, south, and contemplate the span of turf I’m surrounding. There’s no pressure, no race adrenaline, and no good reason not to stop when you get back home at 24. What? A few extra loops? Including a killer hill at 25.5? And no medal for all of this? Are you kidding?

Somewhere around 21, as I was making the long climb back up just to get to the base of the hill upon which I live, I was utterly and completely convinced that 24 would be fine. But after cresting the last big hill, rather than heading down the other side to home and comfort, I found I couldn’t stop myself from doing the two short flat loops up top first, such that when I did pass home, there was no way possible not to do the last loop – the one with the hill, of course. What? Stop at 25.2? Are you kidding?

No finish line clock, no med tent, no Mylar blankets, no after-race party, but I just ran a marathon, indeed, what would have been my 4th fastest marathon had it been official. Most importantly, I got a tremendous confidence boost. I’m reminded that I respect the distance, but I don’t fear it. I’m reminded that I can hold a pace for marathon distance. And after the many hills I just covered, I’m comforted in knowing there are no hills at 25.2 at Wineglass; for that matter, there really are no hills there, period. Training the distance does that for you. Wineglass? Bring it on.

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