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.
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