As a life-long cyclist, I never had much time for (or much interest in) running. I did, however, always wonder if I could run a marathon. Once I turned 40, I decided to give it a try. This past Sunday (two weeks shy of my 46th birthday), I completed my 8th marathon. I am obsessed with the 26.2 mile distance, and there are many reasons why.
There is a fascinating science behind running a marathon as fast as you can. So many little things go into such a big effort. My first marathon (White Rock, '07) was a blur. I was so nervous about the race that I slept only 45 minutes the night before. Once the race began, the energy gels I had tucked in my waistband immediately fell to the pavement. I started to fall apart at the halfway point. I ran in a panic the entire way. I finished in 3 hours, 29 minutes--shy of my goal of 3:20 (my Boston Marathon qualifying time). I couldn't walk for a few days. I was only starting to understand the difficulty of the process.
Experienced marathon friends of mine had told me "You'll learn something every time you run a marathon, and that'll make you better in your next one." Indeed, over the last few years, through trial and error, I've learned a great deal about my body and my mind. I've learned what kind of training works for me and what doesn't. I've learned what kind of diet works for me and what doesn't. I've learned what kind of mental approach works and what doesn't. It's one big, ongoing experiment, and that's what makes it so much fun. There is nothing more exciting than lining up at the start on race day knowing you are 3 hours away from finding out if your methods and theories will work or not--and finding out just how far you can push your body and your mind. The results can be euphoric or depressing, and that's the beauty of it all.
I got a little better in my second race (Athens, OH, '08). A 3:25, but I fell apart with two miles to go--I had massive hamstring cramp that brought me to a standstill. My third marathon was a disaster (Eugene, OR, '09). I was coming off of a stress fracture in the fall, and my training in the spring had been subpar. But, I talked myself into thinking I could run a 3:20 because I had performed well in some tune-up races. But the marathon is such a different beast from any other kind of foot race. If it were 20 miles long instead of 26.2, it would be considerably easier. Something happens at mile 20. They say the 20 mile mark is halfway in a marathon, and they're right. That day in Eugene I hit the wall so hard at mile 20 that I could barely walk. My hotel was on the race route at mile 22, and with my eyes crossed and my legs and brain feeling like jelly, I quit the race and headed straight to my room.
That fall, I ran the New York City Marathon. I went in with few expectations, and finally ran a 3:20. One of the happiest days of my life--I had finally qualified to run Boston, which I did in '10 and '11. My times in my last few marathons have always been around 3:20, with a best of 3:18 at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth last June. At age 45, I was starting to wonder if I could go much faster. I knew that at some point I was going to start to slow down, I just didn't know when.
So, this fall, I changed a lot--the ongoing experiment continued. After a huge plate of ribs in August--and an afternoon of feeling like crap--I decided to change my diet. I cut out almost all red meat, chicken, pork and dairy. I ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. I also changed my training--instead of running my long, 20 mile training runs at a fast pace, I ran them easy. That plan left my legs fresh for my speed workouts during the week, and it also led to fresh feeling legs on race day. I discovered that I was wearing myself out during training, and often arriving at the start line in less than optimal shape.
I also changed my mindset. I started racing without a watch. This was a major move. I ran a personal best in the half marathon in October with no watch--I just went on feel. It was awesome--very liberating. I recommend it to anyone. I will never run another race with a watch again.
I also read an interview with legendary triathlete Mark Allen (Inside Triathlon, Nov '11) that changed my way of thinking in a race. Allen dealt with a lot of mental demons early in his career. He couldn't ignore the negative thoughts during a race--when he was feeling bad, his mind kept telling him to quit (the same voices most of us hear). He finally figured out how to deal with the bad times during a race--he had to train his mind to to find a certain place:
"Once you give in to the negative thoughts during a race, you almost always slow down--you're almost always done. But, I found it too hard to keep pumping myself up with positive thoughts in a long event. The best place to be is between the two thoughts. It's the most powerful place. There is a silence, and in that silence you find the answers to the problems you may be having. Or you'll just feel an ease, a grace, a calm.
If you can find that space where your mind goes quiet then you don't need a positive thought to keep going--you're not thinking and analyzing and thinking if it's good or not good. You're just there putting one foot in front of the other, and all of the sudden you can feel this ease wash all over you--all over the muscles in your whole body. And then you're not really attached to whether you do your best time or don't do your best time--you're just giving your best effort that you have. And when you're in that space, all of the sudden possibility just opens up for you. And you can just feel it. You feel like "wow, maybe I can" even though you're not really worried if you do or don't. It's just this space that's like awareness--you're aware of everything going on around you but you're calm and not talking and not judging."
Wonderful advice. Advice that I put into practice last weekend. I ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento. I was feeling great in mind and body. We had perfect weather: clear, calm and 40 degrees. I ran with the 3:10 pace group until I had to let them go at mile 20 (halfway!). My goal was to run something under 3:15, but after mile 20 I had no watch and no pace group, so I had no idea what pace I was on. I ran on feel, as hard as I could, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other--trying to find the place between the two thoughts. I finished in 3:13:38--a five minute personal best. I was elated. I was also very satisfied to know that my methods and theories had been validated--and happy to know that at almost 46 years old, I wasn't slowing down yet.
So, the obsession with the distance and the process continues. I've told myself that I won't stop running marathons as long as I keep getting faster. So how much faster can I go? Well, if I can keep chopping five minutes off of my time each race, I'll be able to run a near-world record time of 2:05 or so by my 60th birthday. Something to shoot for.