The Beautiful Puzzle Of Marathon Training (And How Much I Miss It)

The Beautiful Puzzle Of Marathon Training (And How Much I Miss It)

The fall marathon season is in full swing. Well, virtual marathon season. If you’re running a marathon this year, chances are the race will not be on a marked course with water stops, medical tents, and thousands of other runners. It will likely take place on a course of your choosing, at whatever time you want, over a specified range of dates. There won’t be water tables, gel stations, or free samples of Biofreeze. You will probably run it alone.

It won’t be the same. And I wish I was running one.

I’m not running these days. After a four-month hiatus this past spring and summer due to a medical condition which I believe is officially called “Shitty Feet,” I returned to the road in late August for a series of slow two-milers, only to suddenly discover, on my sixth run in three weeks, a sharp pain in my left heel. I stopped after a quarter mile and went home, defeated.

I’ve been strength training like a maniac because it helps me feel like I’m making up for the lack of running somehow, even if my muscles don’t look any different than they did six months ago. For anyone worried that strength training six days a week with 8 to 15 lb. weights will cause you to “bulk up,” I assure you it will not.

Somewhat conveniently, my foot pain has lined up nicely with the current pandemic and the subsequent suspension of formal road racing. It’s easier not to train when you have nothing to train for.

I miss running. I also miss racing.

Me and my pal Scott after the 2019 Brooklyn Half

Most of it, anyway.

There is much to love about race day: getting up early (yes, I actually love this); eating oatmeal at 5 A.M.; feeling excited, and ideally slightly cold, while idling at the start line; the rush of hearing Peter Ciaccia or Michael Capiraso ask over the loudspeaker, “Do I have clearance on the roadway?”; flying over the start line and settling into a rhythm; the joy of passing other runners; the frustration of having others pass me; the relief of crossing the finish; the post-race bagel; going out to brunch with my running club and comparing race notes over lukewarm Eggs Benedict and countless cups of black coffee in stained mugs.

There’s something else I miss about all of this: the training.

The Training

I have only ever trained for three races: the 2018 NYC Marathon, the 2019 New Jersey Marathon, and the 2019 NYC Marathon – all marathons. I’ve run many other races but never actually “trained” for them. I’ve just stuck the 5Ks and 10Ks and halves into my marathon training and hoped for the best.

My marathons each had dedicated training schedules covering three to four months, indicating how often, how far, and how fast to run. Some of it was left up to me, but I always followed a plan.

As I trained for my second marathon, I began to think of training as a giant puzzle with thousands of tiny pieces, each one needing to be tweaked so it fit with all the others. Over the course of several months, these tiny pieces would join with others to form larger pieces, eventually all fitting together to form one giant, indestructible, completed puzzle.

At least, that was the hope.

There were rookie mistakes I made in my first marathon; not having a fueling strategy was probably my biggest. I brought too many gels with me on the course, a fig bar I never finished, and slowed down for water and Gatorade every mile, alternating a few sips of each every other mile. It was too much and I hadn’t practiced any of it. As a result, I had to stop during the race at a porta-potty and missed my goal of breaking four hours – by eight silly seconds.

At mile 23 of the 2018 NYC Marathon, hoping for a sub-4. I finished in 4:00:07.

So, for my second marathon – the one in which I wanted to not only break 4:00 but qualify for Boston by breaking 3:50 – I decided to do some tweaking.

Race Day Fueling

From early on in my 4-month training plan for the 2019 New Jersey Marathon, I tested different fueling strategies. On race day, I would not slow myself down by stopping at water stations this time and, instead, carry my own bottle on a belt.

I experimented with what type of electrolytes to add to the water (tablets? Gels? Both?) and what, if any, other fuel to carry. How often to drink, how much to sip, how many gels to carry, and how often to take one required further testing.

I did this experimenting every Sunday on my long run. An ideal long run was one where I felt hydrated, could maintain my pace, and didn’t have to stop to go to the bathroom.

I eventually settled on a formula: one Nuun tablet in a 16 oz. bottle of water which I would sip every three miles, and four Gu gels, alternating in caffeine intensity, which I would have every five miles, and not after mile 20.

I practiced this in the weeks leading up to my second marathon and it’s exactly what I did on race day.

Tempo Runs

Tempo runs played a crucial part in training for my second marathon. I followed a new training plan for this race (courtesy of my amazing running club, the New York Harriers) which called for many more tempo runs than my previous plan had. These tempo runs incorporated slightly faster paces than easy runs at longer and longer durations each week, eventually getting up to ten miles at marathon pace about three weeks before race day.

These runs made a huge difference in the results of my second marathon, which I ran only five and a half months after my first. I finally saw how important it was to get in longer distances at fast-but-not-too-fast paces.

Finding my precise marathon pace was a whole experiment in itself. I aimed for 8:35 min/mile – ambitious for a 40-something, non-professional athlete like myself but not impossible. I got to the point where I was extremely confident that I could finish the race within a 5-minute range of 3:45 to 3:50. To think that I was able to hone in on such a small range for a 26.2-mile race is kind of nuts! But it speaks to how well I had a feel for what I was capable of and what I wasn’t.

For that, I credit not only the training itself, but all the tweaking and testing that took place during it.

Crossing the finish of the 2019 NJ Marathon, hoping for a sub-3:50. I finished in 3:48:05.

For my third and most recent marathon, most of my training plan was thrown out the window after a stubborn bout of plantar fasciitis settled in and never went away. I somewhat stupidly ran the race anyway. It’s not worth going into how horrible the second half of that race was for me. Suffice it to say that I learned a lot about what not to do during training – perhaps a subject for a future post.

The Scientist

Race day fueling and tempo runs are just two examples of many experiments I did during marathon training. There was overall nutrition, strength training, warm-ups, drills, shoes, speed work paces, easy run paces, rest days, sleep. Depending how I felt after each run and at the end each week, I would evaluate, make adjustments, and try new things.

I kept a detailed log of my runs: mileage, pace, weather, how I felt. It was fun to go back over the week and determine how much of a success it had been, what I did well, and what I could have done differently.

I miss this process. It was like a big, exhausting, sweaty science experiment.

As much as I don’t want to insult the world of science by comparing myself to an actual scientist, I decided to look this up.

Merriam-Webster defines science as:

  • the state of knowing
  • a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study
  • something (such as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge

Running is a science. Therefore, I’m a scientist. Just without a degree. But who needs one of those, anyway?

*****

I’d like to think that everything will be back to normal someday. My feet will heal. Social distancing will be a thing of the past. Masks will return to adorn only the faces of doctors, dentists, and construction workers. Races will happen again. Everything will be okay.

There have already been hints of a return to racing – NYRR recently hosted its first in-person races since last March and has plans for more. Some things are returning to normal, even if “normal” may mean something different going forward.

I look forward to marathon training again. It’s hard work. The good kind. I can’t think of another endeavor that is so much an endless experiment in you. It can be frustrating and rewarding, exhausting and fulfilling, heartbreaking and motivating. It is a beautiful puzzle. And I miss it.

4 thoughts on “The Beautiful Puzzle Of Marathon Training (And How Much I Miss It)

  1. I am reading your blog and thinking “why don’t I like to run?”. I would like to have such a hobby, but it’s too late for my age to start. Good luck to you and many more marathons!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know. I’ve heard you have to breathe and run in some sort of correct way… I think it must be a trainer to teach you how to run. I maybe wrong

      Like

      1. You don’t need a trainer. Just take it slow. There are also so many free videos and articles online about correct techniques – you can find a lot of information for free!

        Like

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