Wednesday, October 29, 2008


On Monday I posted a link about my college coach. Here’s a LINK to some of his great photos from Berlin – including this one of him and the WR holder.

Friday I posted a bunch of races I was thinking about doing in 2009. Saturday I was doing some yard work and it occurred to me that while all those races would be fun, what I really want is a PR in the marathon. I guess I realized that that’s the only “real” distance that I can still PR at – and that window won’t be open much longer.

Speaking of the marathon, after TCM I wrote this article.

The Marathon
by Chad Austin 10/13/2008

Ah, the marathon…the one item that is probably on more “to do” lists than any other item. There’s no denying that runners and non-runners alike have a fascination with the concept of running 26.2 miles. But why?

As my latest marathon was fast approaching, my training was not exactly where I wanted it to be. I found myself blogging more and more about concerns I had regarding hitting a certain time goal. Luckily, a reader commented, “Running times are best thought of after the race, when they can help quantify past and present performances. It sounds like you value the result more than the experience.” That reader was right. Rather than taking in the entire journey for what it was worth, I boiled 18 weeks of training down to a five-minute window on either side of three hours.

Narrowing everything I trained for into that tiny window of time made me lose track of the real reasons I run marathons. Now that the marathon is over and still fresh in my mind – and legs – I thought I’d take a look back over this last training cycle, as well as the last 10 years of marathoning, and pull out the experiences that stand out the most to me. These are the things that, for the most part, are unique to the marathon and make me enjoy the journey and answer the question why.

As a year-round runner, there’s really no particular time when I start my training. However, about four months from the race I’ll start building my long runs and focusing workouts towards the marathon. Some of the things that stand out in my mind during this time are the longer and longer group runs, gradually seeing more and more other training groups along the most popular running routes, the days getting longer and the weather getting stickier.

In general, things go smoothly early in my training, but there comes a period about eight weeks out when the race still seems incredibly far away. It’s not! It’s actually right around the corner. When I get to race morning I know I’ll say, “Wasn’t this race just two months away?” If you’re like me and tend to run one or two marathons each year, it’s also during this period when thoughts about taking a break from marathoning enter your mind. My shorter races seem slower than I’d like and I tell myself if I can just get through this one, I’ll take break from marathons and focus on speed.

It doesn’t matter how long my training cycle lasts, there’s always a good chance that I’ll experience some type of setback along the way. It could be an injury, cold, work commitments, or family obligations. Something along the way is going to have me questioning my confidence and my fitness. I’m always amazed at how even a minor setback will affect my psyche. One week of dismal training and I’m ready to scrap 30 years of training. Luckily, experience tells me that fitness is not lost that quickly and often a minor setback is just the thing I need to recharge my batteries for that final push towards race day.

If I minor setback doesn’t recharge my batteries, the taper will. But first, I have to get through that overall sluggishness that comes at the beginning of each taper. Then there are the phantom injuries that pop up. These are the aches and pains that occur in places I’ve never had any problems ever before. If I survive all of this – while resting and stuffing my face with carbs – I’ll start to feel incredible about four days before the race. My mind will tell me to relax, but my body will be chomping at the bit – it’s a feeling that I think race horses must have when lining up in the starter’s gate. If I’m not careful controlling these feelings, I may find myself doing energy-sapping projects that could easily wait until after the marathon, like cutting the grass, raking the leaves, or painting the entire house. Even if I am able to contain myself, there’s a really good chance that I’ll feel terrible the day before the race, which allows more last-minute doubts to creep in. I figure this is my body’s way of keeping me honest.

The taper is also when talk of every marathoners favorite topic – the weather – begins. Long-range forecasts start ten days out and I start to check, even though I know; 1) it’s entirely meaningless at this point and 2) I can’t do anything about it. Of course, I always hold out hope for perfect race day conditions, which never seem to materialize. And although I dread those days when I find myself in the midst of record high temperatures, finishing in those conditions is a badge of honor. It turns out I remember those races more than most.

Finally, race weekend is here and senses and emotions are on high alert. Things as simple as picking out a shirt to wear to the Expo become the most critical decision I’ve ever made. Do I wear a shirt from another marathon? Is my Boston shirt too braggadocios? How about a just wearing a shirt from my favorite 5K or 10K? Or, heaven forbid, a non-running shirt? Decisions, decisions…

Once I find a shirt to wear and I’m at the Expo, I try to follow two pieces of advice I’ve received over the years; 1) stay off your feet and 2) don’t try anything new leading up to the race. These are great tips, but following them is harder than it sounds. The Expo is your one-stop shop for all-things running. All those cool things you see in magazines and catalogs, but can’t seem to find in running stores are at the Expo. And remember those new things I’m not supposed to try before a race – like pomegranate juice or pasticcio energy bars – they’re there too and they’re calling my name.

After picking up my race packet, it’s time to get my clothes laid out for race day. As an early morning runner, I do this every night and it’s an easy task. However, on the eve of the race, this task turns me into the most obsessive-compulsive person in the world. I grab three of everything before convincing myself that two of everything should be enough. Then I triple-check that I really do have two of everything. Once the clothes are in place, I lay out enough breakfast to feed my entire family – even though I know nerves will cut my normal consumption in half.

Normally I’m a regular Rip Van Winkle, but that all changes the night before a race. Instead of getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep, my evening turns into a series of 2-3 hour naps surrounding an hour or two of tossing and turning. It’s a good thing the experts say that the sleep you get two nights before the race is more important than the night before.

On race morning, it’s easy to see how nervous everyone else is too, as they prance and fidget like never before. Skipping a warm-up in order to save every ounce of energy for the miles ahead only makes things worse. Finally, the gun goes off and the nerves have disappeared. I’m in my element doing what I love – only this time my “group run” includes 8,000 other runners. And we actually have people cheering for us along the way. In some places the crowds are so thick and loud that I wonder if this is what it’s like for professional athletes on game-day.

About an hour into the race I begin to notice an ebb and flow of runners around me. I realize that these are my cohorts in crime. For the most part, these are the people that I will be running with until around mile 20 – after that, anything can happen. While I want to beat everyone in front of me, some people stand out more than others – if for no other meaningless reason than their outfit or their running style. I figure it’s a long race with a lot of people and I need to find motivation any way I can. Sometimes that includes wanting to beat the pink fairy, Scooby Doo, the Mailman, or any variety of superheroes that I’ve seen racing over the years.

When I reach mile 16, it occurs to me that, at this point in the race, marathons can generally be broken into one of two categories; 1) Man, I only have 10 miles to go, or 2) $#@*, I still have 10 miles to go. In either case, the rest of the race is sure to provide experiences I just don’t get in a 5K or even a half marathon. It’s these experiences that make any thoughts of taking a break from marathons to focus on speed quickly disappear. As soon as I cross the finish line, I’m already thinking about my next marathon.

I think Emil Zatopek summed it up best when he said, “We are different, in essence, from other men and women. If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.” I think it’s these experiences that capture our fascination with 26.2 miles and keep us coming back for more.


Love2Run said...

Nice post and well said Chad! Word for word what I also do and think along the way, esp the 10 miles to go point. You know then if you're having a good day or not!

Wayne said...

nice race report

Psyche said...

You've really summed up the marathon experience here, Chad.

All that, AND an Emil Zatopek reference. Oh, my!