Towpath 10-10 Race Recap: Process Over Results in Action

I do not normally write race recaps for throwaway races like this. I like having a race or two I can run just for fun. I am still at a point where most of my time and attention spent on running is spent on obtaining PR’s but I find it refreshing to lace up, head to a small local race with no expectations, and just see what I can do. The Towpath 10-10 fits the bill. Held every Father’s Day, the 10-10 offers racers the option of running a 10 mile or 10k distance. My spring race is done by Father’s Day and I am usually not at the start of my cycle for fall. Running the 10-10 allows me to just enjoy the pure act of racing.

And so last Sunday I lined up at 7:00 am with my fellow 10-milers. For the first time I can remember, the sun wasn’t scorching us, the clear skies replaced by a fog that settled over the Cuyahoga Valley, the 80 degree temperatures common to this race replaced by a cool but humid 64 degrees. Ideal racing weather, or as ideal as you can get in mid-June. I was not sure what sort of pace I could expect to sustain.  I have been running steadily around 35-40 miles a week for a month, but I am three months removed from any speed or tempo work. My lone goal was to find a rhythm I could settle into, one that felt challenging but manageable until the final miles when I would empty the tank.

My initial pace felt hard on the legs but easy on the lungs, somewhere around a 6:45. This was the pace I sustained last year, but I had been in much better shape then. I was unconcerned about my legs; they often take a mile or two to settle in and feel comfortable in a race. What was concerning me was the dialogue going on inside my head. I have finished top-3 overall in a race exactly once in the 8+ years I have been running. It was this race last year when the residual fitness I had kept from my Cleveland Marathon BQ somehow put me near the front of the pack. The heat was brutal last year and I overplayed my hand inching my way into second place. It caught me in the last two miles but I somehow hung on to third place. Well, a year later my head was asking if I could do it again. Two miles in and I was running through different scenarios, wondering if I could pick up the pace, wondering how many runners were in front of me, remembering this stretch where I ran myself into the position to challenge for that top-3 finish. My focus was everywhere but where it needed to be, on the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

Last week I wrote about the parts of the process I am looking forward to as I train for the Columbus Marathon. I made my case for the idea that the process is far more important than the result. Mid-race, in an event that was simply supposed to be fun, I was far too worried about a result, one that was frankly out of my reach. I don’t have the volume to run truly hard through ten miles. I don’t have the speed training under my belt to tap into my highest gears. I needed to simply settle into a pace and enjoy it. I also needed to take the time to practice a skill that I hope will serve me well when I’m running my marathon this fall, that of working my early miles to put me in a position to attack the final 10k and challenge for the sub-3 marathon time I crave. Getting to this position goes beyond running through 20 miles at a specific time. It requires me to run smart, saving as much energy as I can, even while maintaining a fast pace, so I can attack at the end. It means I have to run relaxed, letting go of worries about what could happen if I don’t do X, Y, or Z. Two miles into a race I knew I could not possibly challenge for a top spot in, I was squandering the important opportunity to use it as practice for races down the road.

I returned to basics. I checked my breathing. Relaxed and controlled. The legs? Getting into a rhythm. My upper body? Upright but loose. I was simply running again. My plan from the start had been to run easy through the first four miles and then check how I felt. I did. Could I pick up the pace at all? No, it was not time for that. Two bridges remained at Mile 9 and I preferred to save whatever energy I could for that final stretch. I tracked a runner who was cruising about 50 feet ahead of me. I tried to reel her in but could not. I did not have the training volume to kick. The lack of heat made the going much easier that in years past and my pace remained consistent, somewhere between 6:50 and 6:55. When I hit the two short bridges, in the ninth mile, I was rewarded for my decision to hold off on picking up my pace five miles prior. While I did not have the energy to attack them, they did not kill my momentum as they have in year’s past when the heat and sun combined to finish me off. I crossed the finish line, not far off last year’s pace, winning my age group. Even better, I woke up the day after without stiffness or soreness. I felt ready to train. Columbus was waiting for me, 18 weeks away.

Five Parts of the Process I Am Looking Forward to for Columbus Marathon Training

What is one of the best ways to sustain passion and avoid burnout in your running? Focus not on the end result – an outcome-oriented focus (which may or may not be in your control) but rather on processes that lead to sustained improvement over time – a process-oriented focus. This is one of several terrific pieces of advice from Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg in their new book, The Passion Paradox, which delves into passion, burnout, and how to best cultivate success in the things you care most about.

Next week is the beginning of my marathon training cycle for Columbus in October. My goals are once again lofty: a new PR, a BQ, breaking three hours. However, from almost a decade of experience running and racing, I know first-hand how important focusing on the process, rather than the result, can be. Factors outside a runner’s control can derail the best of plans. Harsh weather, an unplanned illness, or an unfortunate injury all can spoil the best laid plans. While I love racing, the crowds, the energy, the feeling of putting all that work on the line to challenge for a result, I have a deep appreciation for the process that gets me to the starting line. With that in mind, here are five things I am looking forward to in training as I undertake the mammoth task that is preparing to run a marathon.

1. The grind

The idea of grinding may not sound particularly appealing, but it is one of the things I love most about running. Marathon training is hard, it is a slog, and there are days and even weeks where the sacrifices are easy to question. It is in these moments that I remember that if running a marathon was easy, everyone would do it. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has built his team around the notion of pounding the rock, using a quote from Jacob Riis. Riis, a Danish immigrant, noted that when a rock breaks, it is not from the penultimate strike on the rock but rather from the many strikes that proceeded it, strikes that seemingly had done little to affect the stone. This is how I feel about training, that every day, especially those where the grind is bearing down on me, is a strike to the rock and that if I am loyal to the grind, the rock will break for me on race day.

2. Exploring

Consistent weather means opportunities for getting out and running in places I have not previously explored. Running upwards of 60 miles involves plenty of monotony. It is not practical to travel to someplace new or scenic to run every six-mile easy run. I find intervals are easiest done near home where I know where different interval distances end. Traveling somewhere different for a long run or a long tempo run though is refreshing. It staves off boredom, makes runs go by faster, and usually leaves me hungry for more running.

3. The chance to further my craft

I wonder if 2016 me would believe that I am doing now. I thought I had it hard then, training for my first marathon. Looking back at my training logs, mileage rarely broke 45 miles a week. Strength training was an afterthought. Mobility work? Non-existent. This summer I’ll eclipse 60 miles a week, tackle midnight lifting sessions, try to commit to mobilizing stiff tissues 10 minutes a day, and spend more time and focus on my diet and visualizing parts of my race. With each cycle I try to push myself just a little further, to incorporate and refine some part(s) of my training to make me a better runner. At the end of this cycle, I wonder what new aspect of my training will have gone from feeling difficult to feeling like it’s just another part of being a runner.

4. The small decision points along the way

In running, the race is the test, not the workout. I have learned over the years to hold back when I train, hoping to finish any workout feeling like I could’ve gone just a little longer, run one more mile, or finished one more interval. It is a subjective way to make sure I go hard but not too hard. You don’t want to be the fittest guy unable to toe the start line. Stopping short of going all out every day is the way I ensure my health even as I keep pushing my body to new limits. Even with that caution, marathon training comes with plenty of little moments that test one physically, psychologically, and emotionally. I’m talking about the days when getting out of bed feels like a chore, when an easy run could be skipped. Come on, it’s only six miles. Is it really that important? Long runs present the moments when it would be so easy, if not an inefficient use of time, to slow down, even to stop and walk the last two miles rather than pushing the pace and finishing strong against the will of screaming lungs and legs seared with pain. I could do my mobility work and soak my aching feet in an ice bath or I could drink those two beers while vegging out for two hours to a movie. I never make the right decisions in these moments 100% of the time. I do succumb to temptation after a bad day at work and forget the mobility for a Sam Adams. I do have a morning where I can’t motivate myself to run the six easy miles I have planned. I do skimp occasionally on my strength work. The goal is simply to be a little better each training cycle, to push myself to put in as much of the necessary work as possible to prepare for my race.

5. The last few hard workouts between peak week and tapering

Some runners fear the taper. Stripped of the hard training that has defined the last few months they find themselves with limitless energy and a maddening lack of places to expend it. Not me. I love the taper. The taper means race day is just around the corner and at the end of a Hansons plan, it has been almost 17 weeks of working toward that moment. I love the week or so before the taper starts, that coming down from the physical stress of peak week, when I tackle the peak mileage of the training plan. I always have a feeling after I tackle peak week that I have survived the worst that training can throw at me and that what remains is like the icing on a cake, the final needed additions to complete the final product. The time comes with several lasts. The last long run. The last strength run. Then finally, a final 10-mile tempo run. There is a feeling of intense satisfaction when that final race pace mile has been clocked. The hard part of another cycle has been finished. It is just a matter then of maintaining the schedule for another ten days, keeping to easy runs to let the body heal from the stress of training. You finish those and then race day awaits.

A final thought

You should continue to strive toward meeting your race goals. Focusing on the process does not mean forgetting that you have goals. I have a map of the Columbus Marathon course on my desk. My goal time, 2:58:00, is on a sticky note on my mirror. Focusing on the process simply means controlling what you can control and performing those tasks to the best of your ability. I know that if I tackle certain elements of my running process successfully I will be on the right track toward being able to meet my goals. If you are new to running, your process could be a simple as building your running habit, making sure that you get out the door four days a week. That was my first challenge. From there, as is clear from what I wrote above, the process has been to slowly identify more areas that I have control over and perform them to the best of my ability. This has not always resulted in faster race times. Some cycles have ended in disastrous races. Progress is rarely linear. It has resulted in faster races times over the course of time though, and in more enjoyment of the sport. Isn’t that really what we are all hoping for? Switching from an outcome-oriented focus to a process-oriented focus is the way to get there.

Burned Out With Your Running? Remember, It’s Supposed to Be Fun

Lately I have been thinking a lot about windows. When I ran my first BQ  last year, a competitive window opened, an opportunity to chase the sort of marathon times I could run at peak fitness. When I improved on that BQ five months later my focus narrowed to one thing, making sure I did not squander that fitness and close the window I had worked so hard to open. Even when I received the disappointing news that I had not been accepted into Boston, I could take solace in the fact that I was running strong and I assured myself that my perfect race was coming. Earlier in the year, before my calf injury, I was continuing on that trajectory, throwing down training times I had only once dreamed of. I was in the best shape of my life.

The injury ended up being short-lived. It did derail my running of the Cleveland Marathon, a godsend it turned out, because the unseasonably high temperatures that day meant I would have never been able to run a PR. However, I had only really needed about six weeks away from significant training. The window was still open and I set my sights on a race, any race, that would allow me to get in one more marathon before next year’s Boston registration deadline. The Erie Marathon seemed a perfect fit. I began to train again in earnest. Things seemed to be going well. My fitness did not seem to have declined that much. My calf usually felt good. I hit the start of my 18-week program and I was on my way to marathon number four. There was, however, one problem, a realization that had started as a nagging little voice in the back of my head and eventually turned into a consistent, shouted warning. I was not having any fun.

Weeks of 50+ miles of running, of strength training late at night in a gym, and using a lacrosse ball to painfully work out knots, I love it all. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t envision how excited I get when I am pushing myself to my limit. However, there are times during the year when I know I am not ready to handle that challenge. Having decided to run Erie, I quickly realized that rather than enjoying training, I felt like I was cramming for a test. Coming off of injury, I needed to start building up my mileage immediately for the demands of the hard marathon training that was to come. I went from sporadic, disorganized running to running six days a week and no workout could be missed. Even though I did feel healthy, I was still dealing with the unpredictability of returning from an injury. Setbacks did occur. I was still working through tweaking my strength training to handle the root cause of my injury. Small, niggling pains sent me into an anxiety-fueled panic. What if I hadn’t gotten the balance on my strength training right? What if I had not actually identified the root cause of my injury? I was barely into two weeks of training and already fearing that it was about to be derailed. None of this is conducive to good training.

My heart was not into my training either. The cold of another Northeast Ohio winter had lifted. I wanted to plant my garden, hike in the Cuyahoga Valley, drink at an Indians game. Certainly, I can do these things while in the thick of marathon training, but frankly I did not want to divide my attention yet. If I was completely honest with myself, I knew I needed more time to fine tune the new habits and practices I needed to incorporate into my training to help me stay injury free and push my performance forward. I wanted more time to build my work capacity in the gym, more time to develop a consistent mobility program, more time to optimize my sleep routine which can vary with my work schedule. I just wanted more time.

I also knew Erie was not the personally meaningful race I wanted to run. This is nothing against the Erie Marathon. The course seemed perfect for a BQ attempt with a small field and two loops of a state park. I still hope to run it someday. For my big races, though, I prefer a place that is emotionally meaningful to me. It is why I have always raced Cleveland in the spring and often the Towpath in the fall. Those places are synonymous with home. The Columbus Marathon provides that for me. I spent a year there in graduate school. I made great friendships and lasting memories. When I ran Columbus last year, it was a case where I was close to breaking through, but not quite ready. I want another shot at slaying that particular beast. And the change gives me that time I really wanted, five extra weeks to be exact.

The decision made, I find myself carrying around a small map of the Columbus course. I know how weird that sounds, but I want to constantly remind myself of how good I felt and where it went bad so I can be better this year. I am eager for that moment. I am enjoying the buildup to the start of my 18-week Hanson’s plan while feeling like I have just a little bit of leeway to tend to some fun spring-time activities. I skipped my run on Tuesday and laid in my garden during one of the few dry days we have had in recent memory. I felt fine doing so. I start back to the gym next week. I am better at making sure I conduct 10-15 minutes of mobility work a day to keep myself feeling loose. I’m not quite the well-oiled machine that I need to be, but I am ready to start building. Most importantly, training feels fun. Gone is the feeling of cramming for a test. Instead, I feel calm and ready, like I can see a new window opening.