Today, I did my last long training run for the Boston Marathon. This will be my first marathon since December, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For several months, I was running marathons with injuries. I wasn’t doing any training. I was just trying to get through each race.
Getting through each race meant running with an unorthodox stride. I was sort of bouncing from side to side with my hips locked. I realized I was doing this while running, but I didn’t realize I was also doing it while walking and going about my daily activities. After so many months of not using my hips, the muscles around my hips became weak. So did my glutes. I discovered in early February that these muscles had become almost useless.
Since then, I’ve been in physical therapy. I’m making progress, but I still have work to do. I started running in early March. At first, it took a concerted effort to run properly. At times, I felt like a toddler learning to walk. I’m able to run properly now, but I’m still out of shape. Also, my hips and glutes are still weak. They tire quickly.
Earlier this year, I cancelled two races. It was obvious I couldn’t be ready. I was less willing to cancel Boston. Getting in shape wouldn’t be easy, but it was feasible. I don’t expect to run fast. My only goal is to finish within the time limit.
I didn’t have time to complete a conventional training program. I had to go from zero to marathon in seven weeks. I’ve been running about three days a week, while also doing physical therapy seven days a week. I sketched out a training plan that depended primarily on long training runs.
When I ran my first marathon in 1983, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have an adequate mileage base, but I got by with a reliance on long training runs. I went a little farther each time, until I could run a full marathon in training.
The first time I followed a conventional training plan, it was from Galloway’s Book on Running. Jeff Galloway’s plans emphasized long training runs. They were a good fit for me.
This year’s plan again relies on long training runs. In fact, it relies almost entirely on long training runs. I don’t really have a mileage base, so they’re all I’ve got.
Here’s a graph of my total weekly mileage for the last twelve weeks. The first six weeks are all zeros. Then I went from zero to thirty in just four weeks. Since then, my weekly mileage has plateaued, as I’ve shortened some of my runs to work on improving my form.
This graph shows my longest run each week over the same time period. Before today, my longest run was 15.25 miles. Today was my last chance to bridge the gap between 15.25 and 26.2. My goal was 20 miles.
Last week’s long run was disappointing. Actually, it was alarming. I was trying to step up from 13.1 miles to 16.5 miles. I had to stop after 15.25 miles. I started at a pace that was slightly slower than my previous long run, but I had to slow down after only 11 miles. Once I started, I kept slowing down. It seemed like I was working just as hard, even though I wasn’t running as fast. My stride was becoming less and less efficient. By the end, I felt soreness all through my glutes and the smaller muscles surrounding my hips. Finally, those muscles became so fatigued that they basically quit on me. I was disappointed to stop at 15.25, but I couldn’t make it to 16.5 if my life depended on it. I also could make it to 15.5. My muscles basically went on strike.
It wasn’t all bad news. During that run, my stride felt balanced, and I could tell I had good hip rotation. I could feel all the muscles I’ve been working to strengthen. I was using all the right muscles. There’s just one problem. Those muscles aren’t strong enough yet. They can’t do a marathon. They reached their point of fatigue. Then I was done.
On Monday, I saw my physical therapist, Ben. Ben wasn’t too concerned. Like me, he realized my long run reflected both good news and bad news. The good news is that I’m using the right muscles. I’ve been working hard to correct my stride. Not surprisingly, those muscles are having trouble keeping up with my ambitious training schedule. They’re coming along rapidly, though. A few weeks earlier, they got fatigued within the first mile of a run.
For today’s run, I knew I needed to take a big step up. I also knew I needed to slow the pace down. I’ve been starting my long runs at the pace that feels most comfortable. That’s pretty slow, but it’s still not slow enough to be sustainable. I could run slower, but it would feel awkward, and I would worry that I’m compromising my form. Instead, I opted to mix running with walking breaks.
A run/walk strategy has two advantages. First, it allows me to slow the overall pace, while still running at the pace that feels most comfortable. It has the added advantage of varying my gait enough to cause me to use different muscles. That helps delay the onset of fatigue.
I used variable-length walking breaks, which is a pacing technique I’ve used successfully for 24-hour races. I set a target pace of 12 minutes per mile. I did just enough walking each mile to keep me on that pace.
I felt relatively comfortable for the first 10 miles. After that, I starting feeling like the pace was unsustainable. In particular, my running pace felt slightly tiring, and my walking stride was putting tension on my hamstrings. I needed to shorten my stride. I eased the pace on both my running and walking. To compensate, I took shorter walking breaks. Overall, my pace was still 12 minutes per mile. That’s how variable-length walking breaks work.
I was gradually getting fatigued, but it wasn’t as dramatic as last week. When I passed the half marathon mark, I got a psychological lift. I got another lift when I exceeded last week’s distance. This was now my longest run since December.
Ideally, I would have run outside, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. If was cold and windy with periods of rain. To get through this run, I needed to relax and go slow. I have trouble doing that when I’m struggling to stay warm. Cold conditions make me tense up and try to run too fast.
Instead, I ran on a treadmill. Have you ever run on a treadmill for four hours? In theory, it should be easier than running the same distance outside. In practice, it seems much more difficult. It takes mental discipline. I couldn’t do it without music.
I was working my way through a playlist that’s arranged chronologically. Today’s music was from the early 80s. Somewhere past 16 miles, I got a big psychological boost from my music. I started hearing Sirius, an instrumental by the Alan Parsons Project. Sirius is the first track on their Eye in the Sky album. I used to think of this instrumental as an extended intro to the song, Eye in the Sky. It became a hit in its own right when sports teams started using it. During the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls played this music at home games while they were introducing their starting lineup. They would dim the lights and shine lasers on a disco ball, while their announcer introduced Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the players that won six NBA championships. I was a Bulls fan during that period, and watched all the playoff games on TV. This music always takes me back to that era.
By the time Sirius and Eye in the Sky were done, I was past the 16.5 mile mark. That’s the distance I was supposed to run last week. This time, I made it farther, but I couldn’t relax until I reached 20 miles.
The next big milestone was 17.5 miles. That’s roughly two thirds of a marathon. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to whip myself into shape quickly after a period of inactivity. In the past, I always felt more confident if I could work back up to 17.5 miles before a race. This time, I wasn’t sure if 17.5 would be enough.
After the 18 mile mark, I heard another song that gave me an emotional boost. It was Pressure by Billy Joel. Long before iPods became common, I thought it would be cool to create a playlist that mirrors the emotions you go through during a marathon. Pressure was a song I had in mind for somewhere around 23-34 miles. Here are some of the lyrics.
You have to learn to pace yourself
You're just like everybody else
You've only had to run so far
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you'll have to deal with
You have to hear it with the music, but to me, this captures the way I feel when there’s only a few miles to go, I’m really suffering, and I don’t know if I can make it. That pretty much how I felt today.
With the help of my music, I kept moving. At 19 miles, I took my last walking break. Knowing I wouldn’t be walking again, I slowed the pace a little when I resumed running. Now I could stay on pace just by running a 12 minute mile, not that it was easy. My quads and glutes were sore, but they weren’t quitting yet.
Overall, I was tiring. I realized my pace was still too fast for a marathon, but I could do it for 20 miles. I finished in 3:59. The time limit for the Boston Marathon is six hours, so I would have had two more hours to cover the last 6.2 miles. That’s about what it would take to walk the rest of the way.
Having finished this run, I’m now much more confident I can get to 26.2 on race day. To finish within six hours, I need to average about 13:30 per mile. That gives me quite a bit of room to slow down.
The race is in 10 days. I don’t need to do any more long runs. I’m as ready as I’m going to be. I’ll do a few runs next week, but they won’t be long, and they won’t be strenuous. Basically, I’m tapering now. I don’t have the luxury of a two or three week taper, but I also don’t have to recover from the wear and tear of months of training.