Training Journal: April 4-April 24 Peaking

The last three weeks constituted the most challenging three weeks of the spring’s training block and really, of the five years that I have run. In three weeks I tallied 140 miles, ran the longest single run I have ever run, and strung together workouts that demanding a leg-crushing combination of stamina, speed, and strength. I expected to walk out of Peak Week stiff and sore but instead emerged feeling strong and confident.

A Not-So-Great Tune Up

In the past I have run a tune-up race near the end of my spring training cycle. It is a nice way to get back into the swing of racing, to break the death grip that cabin fever can bring over me during unpredictable Cleveland winters, and to test my fitness before my spring race. When I was training for half marathons, I would run the Towpath Five Miler in place of that week’s tempo run. I would race slightly faster than tempo pace, but the race is short enough that it did not require any significant drop in mileage in the weeks before or after the event. In the past I have run this event at full speed and run it well. It has been a nice boost to my confidence heading into May.

Having moved up to the marathon, I decided I would bump up to the Towpath Half Marathon as a tune up race. Here I was left with a conundrum. Five hard miles was easy to fit into my training schedule without needing to cut mileage. A half marathon would not be so forgiving. I could either run the race at an all out effort, meaning I would have to trim mileage before and after the race, or I could run it as a workout. I decided on the latter.

Race day was frigid with temperatures below freezing. The photos from that day are funny; I look like I am preparing to trek through a distant frozen tundra rather than racing through a valley in Northeast Ohio. Cruelly, the weather the very next week would be sunny and 70. Spring in Cleveland. I opted to start fast and log my tempo miles early, a change from my usual routine of warming up with several miles and then turning on the burners, but in line with what my actual marathon will look like. I knocked out eight miles well enough, but then had to endure the planned slower five miles on tired legs while trying to stay warm in the frigid air. It was less than enjoyable. When I race, I do it to run well. This was the first time I really entered a race without meaning to compete, all out, from start to finish, and I found myself disappointed. I felt no sense of accoplishment at the end (though I accomplished what I wanted to that day). Maybe as I continue to train for marathons and become more acclimated to the pounding I will be more open to tackling a race like this with more gusto. In this case, however, despite running on one of my favorite courses in Cleveland, I felt underwhelmed, an unusual occurence during this cycle.

Keeping Things in Perspective

When something goes bad you often here the phrase that _______ is not a sprint, but a marathon. This is true, literally, for a marathon and also for marathon training. Three weeks ago I tackled my second 20-mile run in as many weeks. Still new to this distance, I was conservative in the early going but as the run went on and I felt strong, I began to push the pace a bit. This has been typical of my long runs this year. Disaster struck at Mile 18. My muscles began to cramp horribly. The asphault I was running on was surely turning to quick sand. This was a run worse than death. I wanted to stop and curl into a ball right there on the side of the trail. Somehow I dragged myself to my car and managed to navigate my way home.

My first instinct was to panic. I coulnd’t even finish a 20 mile run. Getting to 26.2, and in a decent time, felt like an insane idea. But like I said, marathon training itself is a marathon and in a week’s time this bad workout would be erased. I returned to the same path I had so spectacularly crashed on the week before. Again I started conservatively but only a few miles in I could tell I was going to feel strong. The workout was only for 16 miles and my legs were showing no fear of the distance. Earlier in training I would become obsessed with maintaining a certain pace, pushing myself beyond discomfort to hit a time that meant I was feeling stronger. However after logging more of these longer runs, I’ve discovered that my best workouts happen when I listen to my body and let the pace come to me. So that’s what I did. Miles melted away. As I turned back at the halfway mark I was pushing a pace near the 7:30’s but it felt effortless, or as effortless as it can feel on legs that are going to be pushing for 16 miles. Five miles from the finish I was dropping into the 7:20’s and held it. Two miles out I was into the 7:10’s and tiring, but not from the pace but rather the distance. I finished relaxed and controlled.

Peak Week

Running relaxed and controlled has become my focus now and as I entered Peak Week my focus would be on making each mile as relaxed and controlled as I could be on legs that were being asked to log 51 miles in a week, a new personal record.

The week began with a 22-mile run. Wanting to build mental toughness for the end of the Cleveland Marathon, which asks runners to deal with a final hill just before the finish, I returned to a course that would start me with a four-mile downhill stretch that would become a four-mile uphill stretch on the return. The first six miles were a struggle. I could not seem to get my blood sugar under control. I focused on staying relaxed, guessing that as I continued running and fueling how I felt internally would straighten out. They did. With this being my longest run of the cycle, I made sure I did not push the pace, wanting to have plenty left for the hills at the end. My goal in May is to run the first half of the marathon in this manner, settling into a rhythm that feels almost effortless before I spend the second half pushing things a bit. At the turnaround I felt strong and I naturally started to push the pace, though in a more relaxed and controlled manner than was usual of my earlier training. No big drops in time, just maybe five seconds per mile shaved off. At Mile 17 I began to hit the hills, at first just a a gradual climb and then a brutal 11% grade that I had to slow down to scale. I survived and tackled the last three miles strong and with satisfying splits. I shuffled a bit at the end but all told I consider it my best all around run of this spring’s cycle.

Next came a tempo-hill combo. Eight miles of tempo runs were split in two and preceeded by 4 x 20 second hill sprints. Again, I wanted to make sure I was relaxed and in control during my tempo runs. I have had a problem with pace discipline during these runs, pushing the envelope too far at times. I wanted to make sure I did better at locking in on my race pace and saving energy for the last few tempo miles which would prove to be daunting on tired legs. The workout built a lot of confidence as I logged my miles and at a pace that felt sustainable. I am becoming better at welcoming the discomfort that comes at the end of these workouts, realizing that the more I embrace it in training the less of a shock it will be in my race. I am especially trying to use the end of training runs to visualize what I will be feeling beyond Mile 20 in my marathon. As I hit the last two miles I had to spend a good deal of mental energy keeping my body moving forward at the pace I was running. It no longer felt easy (or as easy as tempo miles can feel) but with a sharpened focus, it didn’t feel like anything I would be unable to handle. My last mile would prove to be my fastest.

My final key workout of Peak Week was a set of Yasso 800’s, six of them, dropped into the middle of a 10.5 mile run. I had done an earlier set of Yasso 800’s three weeks earlier and my times, averaging about a 3:04 had been promising, though a strong headwind that day left me feeling that my times could have been improved. On this day, the wind was far tamer. I felt confident I was going to get a solid read on my fitness. I was not disappointed. My first interval, a 2:59, would be my slowest. As I got used to the pace my times dropped significantly. I ran several 2:51’s and would stay under 2:55 until my final interval, which clocked at a 2:58. Most promising to me was that, like the rest of the week’s runs, I was running strong but in control at the end. My legs were fatigued (I was wrapping up a third hard workout during a 51-mile week) but my form remained strong.

And so now begins the taper. Mileage the next three weeks winds down and, as of this writing, my race is in 18 days. I am not quite sure what to expect, only because I have not covered the distance in a race before. But overall I am happy with my training and I am going to choose to trust it. We’ll see what happens.


Weekly mileage the last three weeks: 42.1 miles, 47 miles, 51 miles (Peak Week)

Mileage covered so far this year: 527.2 miles


Training Log: March 21-April 3

Going Where I’ve Never Gone

These last two weeks were weeks I have been waiting for. I reached weekly mileage I have only touched on two or three times previous in my training. I ran long runs that were further than I have ever traveled. Two weeks ago it was an 18-miler. It was an unseasonably warm day and I headed to the Cuyahoga Valley and a part of the Towpath that I have tackled some of my previous longer long runs on before.

The run itself went better than I may have hoped. I kept to my normal pace, around 7:50 per mile for the first eight miles. The miles felt effortless. Unlike in previous years, where I would approach ten miles and start to anticipate the end of the run, on this day no such thoughts crossed my mind. It was the first time I felt like a true marathoner. I did not want to finish; I wanted to see how strong I could stay in the coming miles.

After the ninth mile, I looked at my watch: 7:36. I had dropped 15 seconds off my pace. And there the pace would stay. Though I knew I was pushing the envelope at this pace, I did not feel I was working particularly hard. I have been working hard to stay aware of my fueling needs and, when I felt my blood sugar dropping around Mile 13, I took a gel and my pace never diminished. In all, I would finish running 18 miles at a 7:43 pace, very encouraging for such a run.

A week later I attempted my first 20-mile run. Overall the run was another success. My pace was only six seconds per mile off of what my previous run had been. Even better, I had purposely planned this run for a hillier course than the previous week’s outing, with the first four miles largely being downhill and the return journey ending with a four mile series of small and large climbs.

I feel I made a misstep during this run however, putting too much stock into the times I had posted the previous week. Part of what had made my 18-mile run so promising was that I did not really plan to run the splits that I did. I simply felt strong, ran composed, and the strong splits were a result. For my 20-miler, a run I had already planned on being more punishing with the hills, I consciously tried to match my times from the previous week, twice running miles that were under 7:20, a pace that is closer to my race pace than my predicted long run pace. Worse, I was putting forth far more effort to maintain these paces than I had put in the previous week.

If I had planned a fast finish run, where the end of my long run was intended to come close to these sort of higher octane paces, that would be one thing. That was not my intent. My intent was to tire myself out and then see how I handled the hilly finish at the end of the run, mirroring the sort of finish I will face at Cleveland in May. Well I was tired when I hit the hills, but more tired than I should have been and it finally cost me. After a climb less than two miles from the finish I had to take a quick break and walk. The walk was not long, maybe three minutes or so, but the intent of the run, to leave something in the tank at the end to power through all the final climbs, was not quite met.

So lesson learned. My 22-mile run in two more weeks, the peak of my marathon training long runs, will also feature a hilly conclusion. I suspect I will be slightly less interested in racing myself into a tired leg frenzy before I actually tackle the whole point of the run.

Juicing Up the Fast Work

Though they are my least favorite sort of workouts, I have come to develop tremendous respect for tempo runs. Tempo runs build endurance by forcing your body to learn how to fight fatigue in the presence of hydrogen ions that are released into the body during exercise. In the past I have struggled with these runs, often run at a perceived exertion of 8 out of 10. However, last year I decided that I would not only tackle this type of run, I would make it harder. I did this after reading an article from Competitor Magazine senior editor Mario Fraioli. The article, which you can read here, describes a workout called a tempo-hill sandwich. The basic outline of the workout is that you run warm up miles, then run 3-6 hill repeats of 20 seconds, take a quick active break, run half your planned tempo mileage, take another quick active break, then repeat the hill runs and tempo run. The hill runs emphasize speed, power, and explosiveness right before you subject yourself to a workout that emphasizes aerobic endurance and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable for a long period of time.

Basically you get your butt kicked but get more out the workout with the combination.

The workout is so hard that in the past, especially in warmer weather, I have struggled to finish it.

Two weeks ago, though, I conquered the monster. I ran the workout as described and was surprised to see how effortless it was to run at tempo pace, at times well under tempo pace, which I had to pull back on (don’t leave your race in a workout).

Then last week I tackled a full seven miles of tempo work. The workout went well, though a train crossing delayed me for a good five minutes or so two and a half miles into the workout, negating some of the planned discomfort the workout is supposed to provide. Still, I finished my final miles running hard, right around my half marathon pace, and feeling strong and in control.

Something to Worry About

I noted in an earlier training log that foot pain in my right foot had forced me to the sidelines for about ten days back in January. Since that time I had the problem largely under control. Following my 18-mile run though, pain started to linger again. This coincided with my weekly mileage creeping into the 40+ mile range and I think it was in part due to the condition of the track during that long run. The Towpath is largely crushed gravel on a dirt base. In the summer this is largely smooth. Though the track was dry for my long run, the effects of a wet winter left it full of ruts, foot prints, and divots that had all hardened. These were not enough to turn ankles or cause me worry over my footing, but I noticed my toes clenched more often to find better footing. The pain was noticeable the next day.

So far the irritation is just that, irritation. Nothing I cannot handle and nothing that, so long as I am wearing shoes, makes me think this will be anything more than a nuisance.

I am less than six weeks away from my race. I am running strong. The irritation is not noticeable when I am running though some pain creeps in when I am done. Unless this exacerbates into something more over the next few weeks, I cannot imagine I will deviate from my course. We’ll see.


Mileage over the last two weeks: 42 miles, 43 miles

Mileage so far this year: 387.1 miles