First-timer Ponders on the Marathon

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The road to marathon is paved with good intentions, but it can littered with bitter lessons. Here are the things I learned as a newbie traversing that road:

1. Lure of marathon. There is certainly romance (melodrama) in the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger being sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon, and dying on the spot after conveying the message. In fact, Robert Browning even made a poem entitled "Pheidippides," melding into popular culture the legend. In recent times one hears of stories of runners crawling or at the brink of collapse towards the finish line, of grown men and women crying at the end of 42.195kms, and marathoners testifying that the distance changed their life perspectives.

I must admit was lured by the romance as well. I knew that the marathon would have a profound effect on me. Months before my first marathon - in long runs and races - I would play in my mind how my marathon ought to be. I wanted my marathon dream to end with me sprinting towards the finish line and with a big smile on my face. I wanted to end my marathon like a Greek or Roman hero coming home from a battle, not a messenger on the verge of collapse. I suppose that is why the Quirino Grandstand was perfect marathon finish venue for me: in many ways it is like the Grecian amphitheater or Roman coliseum.

2. Romanticizing the distance. We runners tend to be lured by lore of marathon, so much that we forget that romance alone cannot bring us to the finish line. The dream must be backed by preparation. Not many people realize that. In fact, when newbie runners develop cramps or are forced to walk at later stage in the run, they view that as noble suffering or sacrifice, and not a result of inadequate training. And when they triumph over that suffering or sacrifice, they consider it a triumph of the human spirit, not the correction of the human folly that it really is - that of coming to battle ill-prepared.

I was such a runner myself. Twice, on the mistaken notion that mind always triumphs over matter, I signed up for 25K race only to develop cramps and be forced to walk. I did finish - beyond cut-off time. Yes it was a triumph of will - of stubborn will and nothing else. Certainly not a triumph I am proud of.

In my opinion, the true triumph of the human spirit is exhibited by dedicated athletes who live on the edge and push the limits of their physical capabilities. When they hurt or suffer, it is not for lack of dedication or discipline, it is for attempting to come closer to their true potential, to bring honor to family or country, and to promote the sport they love. When they do triumph, the rest of mankind rejoices in the victory, for they show everyone that individuals can be bigger than what they think they are.

3. Respecting the distance. It is said that while many are lured by the romance of the marathon, few actually respect the distance. Some sign up for the marathon with the mantra: "Bahala na si Batman". I could get away with running the 10K lacking sleep or recovering from a hangover. I managed to finish a 21k coming from an injury and with only two instances of 10k practice runs. I managed to finish within cut-off time a 25K race - without walking nor experiencing cramps, and with just a month to peak and taper. But I would not recommend that 25k training plan.

I have always imagined my short and long runs from the onset as all preparatory to my marathon, but my formal marathon training plan was just two months after doing a series of 21Ks. I somehow managed to pull through, but on hindsight, I should have had at least 3 months of training, preferably 6 months had I not been injured. I should have allocated more time for very long runs (30kms up), more intense speed intervals, and for recovery days these hard training activities entail.

4. The Wall. In it purest form, The Wall "is the appropriately-named term used to describe an event which happens to many marathon runners when they have crossed a point in the race where they have no more glycogen reserves and when hypoglycaemia ensues. At this point the body, having run out of fuel, starts using fat reserves as a fuel source, much to the detriment of a runner's performance." (Reference)

Fortunately for me, I did not hit the wall. I suppose because I love to eat, even during a run. In all of my long training runs I realized that so long as I take food & drink breaks, I felt I could run for hours. More often than not, I ended my long runs at 3-4hrs not because I could no longer run, but because I had to go elsewhere. I do have a life apart from running :-). I have learned that energy gels can upset my stomach on first use, that they could give me a sugar high that induces me to daydream and slowdown, that sweet choco bars drive me through highs and lows, and that complex carbohydrates (like the 2 packs of hopia cubes I consumed on my marathon) are the best source of even and continuous nourishment. I suppose like the ultramarathoners eventually getting weary of energy gels, I prefer real food.

In my opinion, another wall exists. This Brick Wall exists only for those who do not respect the distance, or those who came to the race proud or ill-prepared. The brick wall manifests itself usually in the form of leg cramps. These cramps can arise from the the belief that "I am a fast 10K/21k runner; surely I can nail down a marathon" or "The half-marathons I have done should suffice for my long run." I am reminded by a quote I see on Wilson's blog:

Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people. - Randy Pausch ( 1960-2008 )

5. The importance of the long run. I made it a point to run at least 32km during my training. Km32 or mile 20 is said to be that point where the body's glycogen stores are depleted rendering the marathoner susceptible to the Wall. I had no intention of meeting the Wall on race day so I ran pass it during training. I also did not want to meet the Brick Wall and the only way for me to avoid it was to subject my body to the slow agony and tedium of running 32km and beyond. My body must know how it felt to run that long - to feel the agony during training, recover and get stronger because of it, and cruise through the distance on race day. I managed to do one 32K and one 35K. I would have wanted to do more long runs - preferably reaching 37K or even 40K, but I lacked time to build up to these distances and recover from the stress they inflict on the muscles.

6. Marathon is in the pacing. One thing I like about the marathon distance is that it plays up to my strength. I am a slow runner but I know how to pace myself. Experience has taught me to be more aware of my capabilities and developed in me the discipline to stick to my pace plan. The marathon is tricky. Run faster than ideal in the early stage and you will most likely suffer from cramps or fade sharply towards the end. Run too slow and you will end up prolonging your suffering on the road. My trick was to find that aerobic pace that allows me to run fast enough, at an even pace, without the dreaded lactic acid build-up. In my case, that aerobic pace is roughly 7min/km - a little slower than my 10K personal best, a little faster than my 21k PB, the average pace for my fast/slow interval work-out, and the pace at which I did my long tempo runs.

I did toy with the idea of setting my target aerobic pace (marathon pace) a little faster at 6:30 or 6:45min/km. I could comfortably run 10k at those paces anyway. But I knew the kind of endurance I have is just slow endurance. I still do not have enough tempo runs to build up speed endurance. My instincts warned me that if I go any faster in the first half, I would surely suffer in the second half of the marathon. I was glad I followed my instincts and pace plan.

7. Pace decay. If a runner is not used to a particular long distance, he will inevitably slow down as he completes the distance. Sounds common sensical, right? I learned this first hand during my 32K and 35K LSDs. I would start deliberately slow at 8min/km, sustain this for 21-25km, then sharply dip in pace to an excruciatingly slow 9min/km. The dip was sharp and dramatic - about a full minute from my starting pace. And I was not even running fast! I call this phenomenon pace decay. Decay ensues simply because the body is not used to running that long. I suppose pace decay was the body's deliberate and conservative way of coping with this venture into distances unknown. It could also be that the body's present ability to absorb wear and tear extends only to that point where pace decay begins. The phenomenon of pace decay only highlights the need to do more long runs.

To postpone the onset of pace decay, I decided to take planned short walk-breaks every aid station throughout the marathon. Following Galloway's philosophy, I would use the short (100m) walks as recovery periods. I was able to sustain pace past km21 and decelerate the pace decline.

On actual race day I experienced the full-minute decay in pace beginning around 25k. What was interesting was that the decay was from 7min/km to 8min/km. The conclusion I drew from this was that full recovery from a prior exposure to an unfamiliar distance - even if ran at slow pace - gave the body enough confidence to tackle the same distance at faster pace.

8. Physical and mental taper. With my limited training time, I only managed to have a one-week taper. It was a short, drastic taper - something I do not recommend. On hindsight I think two-weeks would have been better. My short taper period had me anxious whether I have rested and recovered enough. I tried to make up with the shortness of the taper by the drastic cut in mileage - with me barely running in the last week and focusing instead on stretching, self-massage and adequate sleep.

Mental tapering is normally not given as much attention as the physical taper. For me, the mental taper is more important. One must come to the race with excitement and anticipation, free from doubt and anxiety. In my case I was lucky to have stumbled into an elaborate marathon psychological plan. I knew the odds against me was high, so I conscripted the universe to work with me. I tried hard to be good for my maiden marathon. I organized long runs, paced a friend, volunteered in aid station and coordinated a marathon support group. I helped generate a pandemic of marathon goodwill. That same goodwill would help me run my marathon.

The night before the race I learned to let go of all my worries. On race day I had my plan, my God and my friends by my side.


argonaut July 16, 2009 at 7:44 PM  

So whos greek character are you Rico? You don't need to ask me...
I am already The Argonaut...

You guys are great on conquering the 42K. I bet it was eventful for you and a memory you will never forget....

wilson July 16, 2009 at 7:53 PM  

hmmm i could still learn a bit more about 6 and 7 =)

anyway kudos for bringing up 2 and 3. i really agree with them, but i must admit i am reluctant to bring them up be it on my blog or when talking to other runners. i just want to avoid sounding preachy or a know-it-all. ang hirap nga naman magsabi sa iba ng "hindi ka pa talaga handa kaya nagkaganun". but the truth is, there a lot of runners who don't respect the distance, and what's sadder, do not learn from the experience. they could learn a lot from your post. nicely written.

Rico Villanueva July 17, 2009 at 3:06 AM  

Argo@ Greek hero? Hmmmn, sino nga ba? Most Greek heroes die kasi, usually because of hubris. If you are Argonaut, I am probably Jason who live to tell the tales of his adventures. Or possibly Odysseus.

Wilson, yeah, I did think I might sound preachy or know-it-all, but in the end I chose to write this for myself, to force me to see things as they are and not as how I project them to be. That is the only way I can improve - to be honest and as objective as possible. Heck, I was guilty of the many things I wrote about. If other can profit from my mistakes, that's superb. But if they can't, at least I hope not to repeat the same mistakes I made.

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