Three Lessons from a Breakout Marathon Performance

My Cleveland Marathon performance in May was a dream race – a breakthrough that earned me a Boston qualifying time (BQ for the uninitiated). You don’t earn a BQ without learning some hard lessons along the way. Here are the three most meaningful lessons from my training for and then racing in Cleveland.

 You Have to Put in the Work

The simple truths are the easiest to ignore. I learned this the hard way. Let’s begin with the obvious: anyone who trains to run a marathon puts in work, mountains of work. However the differences between training to finish a marathon and training with a performance goal in mind can be vast. My goal was always to qualify for Boston and if I wasn’t going to challenge for such a time, I wanted my training to push me to a limit, to lay a foundation I could use for a future run at a BQ. The training for my first marathon simply did not meet that criterion.

I made the mistake of overconfidence. I thought I had cracked the training code, that previous fast half marathons would equal fast marathons. I ignored gaps in my training and bad habits that I had accrued. I was lax in my approach to strength training. I avoided consistent mobility work. Rather than being proactive in my approach to staying healthy, I often responded to minor injuries and tried to patch my way back to health. Since I ignored the important extra work that delivers strength and health I was priming myself to line up at a start line on the cusp of an injury. That was that condition I was in when I raced my first marathon.

This time around, I put in the work. I learned from my mistakes. I adopted a strength program that I completed five times a week, emphasizing core, hip, and leg strength. I mobilized tight muscles. I stretched. I iced. Even now I continue to see a chiropractor twice a month, a sort of bi-monthly tune up that remains from the rehab that unkinked my spine after injuries and imbalances left it looking like a question mark. And I ran. More than I have ever run. No longer did I cobble together weeks from plans that had worked for me before. I read books and training theories and decided that the manic ideas of cumulative fatigue espoused by the Hanson brothers, they of the “short” long run, were right for me. It all led me to the start line in the best shape of my life, weighing what I once weighed in college, and confident that somewhere inside I was capable of running a BQ. All I would need to do was navigate the mental and emotional hurdles that a marathon places in front of you and I was sure I would meet my goal.

Feed the Good Wolf and You Can Write Your Own Ending

In his excellent book, The Champion’s Mind, sports psychologist Jim Afremow relates a Cherokee legend known as the tale of the two wolves:

A grandfather explains to his warrior grandson that there are two wolves within each of us: One wolf is positive and beneficial, while the other wolf is negative and destructive. These two wolves fight for control over us. The grandson is curious and asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The grandfather replies, ‘The one you feed.’

Having put in the work, I approached the end of my Cleveland training brimming with confidence. Roughly six weeks out from the race I was convinced I would meet my race goals. Yet I would learn in even this short amount of time that the smoothest training cycle can still present you with late bumps and hiccups. And on race day, 21 miles into the race of a lifetime, I would learn that in the span of a half-mile the wheels can come perilously close to falling off.

Rather than listing every problem I encountered, let me talk about one late training complication and a mid-race set back that each could have derailed my well-laid plans. The training complication occurred during race week. I grow a vegetable garden every year and unseasonably warm spring weather in Cleveland meant I was ready to start planting well before the late-May race date. I bought all my plants and spent one evening planting most of the garden. I assumed over the next two weeks I would find a day to finish the job. Then it began to rain. It rained and it rained and it rained. Then, just to change things up, it rained some more. For ten straight days it rained and my garden became a swamp. Finally the skies cleared and the garden mostly dried out. It was four days before my race but I needed to get my vegetables in. So I set back to work, dug up my raised beds, and finished the work. My reward was a completed garden and waking up to an incredibly sore right calf and an arch that seemed to be in a perpetual cramp-like pain.

The mid-race complication occurred somewhere during the 22nd mile of the race. At Mile 20 I had hit a mental wall. I felt lifted by the knowledge that I was two minutes ahead of my planned time and on pace to earn that coveted BQ. But the fatigue, both physical and mental, of covering 20 miles was draining. While only a short 10k remained, the prospect of running at this intensity for another 40+ minutes was daunting. I narrowed my focus. Cover the next mile, cover the next half-mile. That was when the cramps began. My calves began to pulse; I remember thinking that it felt like each calf had a heartbeat. A mental wall seemed to smack me again. It was all going to come crashing down. I was running the race of a lifetime and cramping was going to stop me in my tracks, and so close to the finish line. I was certain I was doomed.

Both of these problems had the potential to throw me off my game, to live rent-free in my head and leave me pondering how they would lead to disaster. Instead I concentrated hard on feeding the good wolf. Neither of the issues were insurmountable hurdles. Yes, they could become major issues if left unchecked. I approached each problem with a three-part strategy to make sure that did not happen:

  1. Assume I brought something to the table that would allow me to overcome the problem.
  2. Concentrate on doing the first positive thing I could to solve the problem.
  3. Assume it would all work out.

What did I bring to the table that would solve the pre-race calf pain issue? I knew I had not worked it too hard. I had not felt any acute pain during the work, so I assumed it was not strained. I had worked it in a different manner from how it had been used to accrue the hundreds of miles I had covered in my training. I knew in cases like this, delayed onset muscle soreness (the sort of soreness you may feel if you workout after prolonged time off) was a distinct possibility. What could I immediately do to solve it? I could heat the muscles to relax the pain. I could take NSAIDs to fight inflammation. I had no guarantee that this would work, but so close to the race, there was no point worrying about the outcome. I could only do so much. I needed a clear head and to focus on the positive outcomes I had spent months training for and visualizing. I assumed everything would work out. On race day, I woke up pain free despite some lingering soreness that had plagued me the day before.

Trying to execute this process was harder in the middle of the race. Races require hundreds of micro-decisions. Ignore that jolt of pain there, pay attention to this spasm here. Surge now, hold back now. Hey, that’s a cool sign. Stop, focus on your pacing; you fell off a bit during that last mile. It is taxing. The dread that consumed me when my muscles started to cramp was difficult to throw off. I knew that initial spasms could eventually result in the muscle fully seizing up and becoming rock hard. If that did happen, I was done. I remember pondering whether or not I should stop and massage my calves. I ignored that impulse. Despite the cramps I was still running well and wanted to maintain that effort as long as I could. What did I bring to the table that could solve the problem? I knew cramps could be caused by dehydration. I was coming to a water station soon. I needed to drink as much as I could. I also needed to free myself from the notion that I was going to seize up. Yes it could happen but that was not guaranteed. I did all I could to keep that worry at bay. How? By focusing on what I could do immediately. I could keep running. I could cover the next half-mile. I could cover the ground to the next stop sign. The last part of the course introduced some short but taxing hills. At times my focus narrowed to worrying only about making it several hundred feet up a hill. The pulsing came and went. Somewhere in the 24th or 25th mile my hamstring decided to cramp too. It completely deadened and my leg would not extend backward. I kept to that narrow focus. Just move forward, no matter how awkward. How did I assume it would all work out? I knew from my previous race experiences that my body tends to unleash a rush of adrenaline during the last mile or two of a race. If it responded that way today, I would be fine. Luckily it did and my last mile passed in a blur. I hit my goal, that wonderful Boston qualifier, a 3:05:11. It was as good an ending as I could have ever written.

We Are Meant to Go All In

Entering Cleveland I had mapped out a specific race plan in my head. Before dropping into my goal race pace, a 7:03 mile pace, I wanted to run the first four miles 15-30 seconds per mile slower. I had learned from bitter experience that I sometimes emptied the tank too soon, leaving me spent and sputtering at the end of a race. Also, large races with large race fields often are so congested early that getting into a comfortable rhythm is almost impossible.

Instead of feeling free and easy during those early miles I felt tired and sore. This made no sense. My taper was supposed to have helped me heal from the last four months of pounding. Instead of turning on the jets as I entered the fifth mile, I continued to lumber through my leisurely pace, my hamstrings sore, my back achy. This made no sense, but I had also reached an important decision point. I had trained for a year for this day to make a run at qualifying for Boston. My training told me I had the fitness to make that challenge. Yes, I had 21 miles left and yes I was worried that if I felt bad now, I would likely struggle to make it through those next 21 miles, but I would never forgive myself if I didn’t go for it and see what happened. As I passed the Mile 5 marker that denoted the start of my sixth mile, I surged my pace until I hit what felt like the right rhythm. Instantly the feeling of running through quicksand disappeared. I felt strong and my running felt effortless. It seemed after months of training to make my race effort feel almost second nature that my body was incapable of being happy running at anything less than its best. Life, I suspect, is similar.

We all need periods where we coast, where we rest. But ultimately I think we are very much aware of when we are pushing ourselves to our limits vs. when we are coasting, just getting by, or holding ourselves back from something better out of fear that it could go wrong. And I suspect that much of our happiness comes from this. Yes we may fail, we may make mistakes, but we live when we go for broke, be it at work, in our relationships, or in our passions. It is why even two months later I still remember the feeling of picking up my pace as I passed that Mile 5 marker and taking off into an unknown. I did not know what was going to happen, but I knew now that I was giving it my all. I rode that feeling all the way to the finish line and a breakthrough.


A Quick Note

Think the idea of writing your own ending sounds way too good to be true? There is some science to back up the idea, at least in distance racing. One of my favorite sports science writers, Alex Hutchinson, in Outside Magazine, reviews a peer-reviewed paper by Italian physiologists who linked higher emotional intelligence scores to better half marathon race times. Essentially a pre-race test rated runners and their abilities to monitor and regulate their emotions. Those testing better at regulating emotions ran faster half marathons. In fact, Hutchinson notes, “Their scores on this test turned out to be the strongest predictor of their race time the next day—even stronger than prior race experience or typical weekly training mileage. Pause for a moment to let that sink in.”

Interesting stuff.


Happy running,