Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Training for a marathon - without running ragged

For the past few months, my "big project" was training for the Twin Cities Marathon (Oct 5th, 2014). I chose this "project" back in May, because I've completed several half-marathons over the last few years, and I wasn't getting faster - so I figured I may as well go farther.

Conventional wisdom assumes that this would involve a lot of running - most of the plans that you find on the Internet require four (or more) days of running every week, but now that I qualify as a "master runner", I knew that my knees wouldn't enjoy all of the pavement pounding required for a "proper training". 

Time to train smarter

From a geek's perspective, here's what it takes to be successful in a marathon:
  • Efficiency - get the most "mpg" out of your muscles
  • Endurance - the size of your "gas tank"
  • Determination - the mental fortitude to finish the job 

Essential equipment

  • Good pair of shoes, purchased from a running store, not a big-box sporting goods store. I personally have a slight pronation.
  • Lightweight moisture-wicking shirt and shorts (hopefully, your climate isn't like mine).
  • An HRM - I prefer the older Polar models - this is your "tachometer", and helps identify when you're hitting the "red line" and need to ease up.

A helpful item is a GPS enabled smartphone, and the means to take it on the run (arm band, fanny pack, whatever). I'm a huge addict of the site MapMyRun, with the ability to plan a safe/sane route (due to the dearth of running trails in my town), and then mapping it as I run it (I'm a huge stats/data geek). 

Getting started - finding the baseline

Since I was becoming "comfortable" running a half marathon, the first question was finding the max distance until I hit the wall. In late May, the Sunday morning forecast was a temperature in the low 50's and foggy - which is pretty much the perfect conditions, because fog means no wind. I managed to plod along at my usual pace for 18 miles, struggled for the next 2 miles, and then ended up "doing intervals" for the last 3 miles (yeah, that's a fancy way of saying "walk and run"). 

After that long run, my quads were complaining the most, so I needed a training plan that would build up that muscle group. The solution: hills and stairs!

Figuring out a training plan

The Twin Cities Marathon is a fairly flat course. I read a bunch of blogs and reviews from people who had run it, and most people agreed that the most difficult part was miles 20-23, which are uphill, coming up 200 feet from the river valley. I figured that hill training would probably be a good component of my training.

During the summer, my weeks pretty much went like this:
Sunday: Long run - either 10 miles (or more) of hills, or 13-16 miles of flatter terrain.
Monday: Relax
Tuesday: Intervals on a Stair machine
Wednesday: Swim laps (half mile or so)
Thursday: Variety day - outdoor run (4.5 miles) at a faster pace, or cardio exercise class, or more stairs/intervals.
Friday: Occasional indoor rock climbing (my favorite addiction)
Saturday: Relax

Peaking and Tapering

In the middle of September, I was three weeks away from the big event, and apparently that's the time to peak and start tapering. My Sunday morning run was 20 miles (and the first few miles were in darkness, sigh). At the end, the biggest problem was fueling and hydration - I had only packed two energy gels and a 20oz water bottle (with one refill at a park along the way).

The next weekend (two weeks out), I did a 13 mile run, and tried the Cliff Shot Blocks (chewy things), and discovered that they're really hard to chew while running. On the plus side, they have caffeine, which helps keep things moving.

Finally, one week away, ran a "big" run of 6 miles. Seemed almost "too short" compared to the weekly runs I had been doing.  A few days later, I was itching for a short run, so I did a 4.5 mile loop on mostly flat terrain, just to keep the familiar stride.

The big day

I always arrive at these events obscenely early, so that I can figure out where the starting corrals are, the gear/bag drop-off, and the most essential equipment: porta-potties! The temperature was in the upper 30's, which isn't quite warm enough for the basic "t-shirt and shorts" weather, so I threw on a wicking loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt.

The race was an amazing experience - many of the neighborhoods along the course make a huge production of cheering on the runners. With all of that energy being thrown at you, it's hard not to enjoy the event. One of the spectators teased me for smiling too much, claiming that I was "wasting precious endorphins" and that I should save them for the 20+ mile mark. I just smiled even more.

Just past the 15-mile mark, I had some amazing friends helping me out, and I peeled off the sweat-saturated shirt, and threw on a fresh (and dry!) wicking t-shirt, which was big improvement.

In the end, I completed the event in 4 hours and 5 minutes, which seemed like a pretty good finish for my first time. Huge thanks to all of volunteers that help make this event "run smoothly"!

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