Thursday, November 17, 2005

11/17/2005: MCM Redux

Or, "How I Done Did It"

A number of people have asked me what made the difference in going from a PR of 3:17 to nearly 20 minutes better, with a finish of 2:57 and change this year. It honestly wasn't anything magical; the core of my success was the training, and dedication thereof. But in addition there were some subtle factors that helped me along the way.

Here's a recap of what I believe helped me make such a vast improvement in my marathon time:

  1. Focused and dedicated training. Quite frankly, before this year I'd been following a training schedule that I really didn't understand. While I knew the purpose for the variety of workouts, I really didn't know what they were accomplishing. In 2005, I read Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning, and it made a world of difference. Not only did it have a variety of detailed and specific training schedules, but there was a great deal of explanation and scientific support behind the training prescribed. Additional information was given on nutrition, hydration, and strategy. With the properly selected schedule, I then dedicated myself to keeping on track with each daily workout. In past years, I may have skipped days or shortened workouts. This year, despite some last-second travel and other commitments, I kept to the schedule almost 100%. At times, it was not easy; I'd estimate that 75% of my workouts were done in the early morning hours between 4 and 7 am. And some days it was pouring rain, but still I ran; after all, what if it was raining on race day? In the end, it was obviously worth the sacrifice.
  2. Get help. This was my fifth marathon, and my third with BBBSNCA. In addition to the weekly email newsletters and training sessions they offered--I actually have a personal preference to train solo--I did benefit immensely from the advice of my assigned training coach, Nick Paniebianco. Every time I had a question, Nick had an answer. At times when I think I may have been pressing to train too hard, he convinced me it was OK to lay off a bit, and rest. I got advice from Nick on all sorts of things, from nutrition and hydration to strategy, benchmarking and even a suggestion on a good pair of socks. Any serious runner will tell you those are critical to success.
  3. Get more help. I also talked with many other fellow runners about a variety of topics, and culled the Internet and runner forums for even further info. One friend who is an ultramarathoner told me about using Succeed salt tablets, which I began using on my long runs and races. Along with other nutritional changes, this was huge.
  4. Don't overtrain. A high school friend and veteran of several Boston Marathons, Dan Sweet, gave me two pieces of advice I remembered throughout my training this year. In the October 2003 marathon, I'd been training consistently since a week after the 2002 race, or effectively for 12 months. This may have been too much, and my time from 2002 (3:17) didn't improve, but regressed severely, to 3:32; my splits were 1:30/2:00. Ouch. Dan's advice was simply to follow a prescribed 18 or 24 week schedule, and up to the start of that schedule, simply stay in "maintenance mode". Run a few times a week to stay in shape, but not the 5 or 6 times weekly as with actual training. Great advice. And secondly, in our conversation following his 2005 Boston Marathon, I noted that I wished I could put on 15-20lbs. in hopes of aiding my endurance. His reply? "Consider having to carry that extra 15-20lbs. for 26.2 miles". Touche, my friend. Touche.
  5. Follow your progress and set some benchmarks. I kept this journal/blog starting in June 2005: every day, every workout from the training schedule. Having a written history of my progress was helpful and gave me a frame of reference for future training. Additionally, the schedule I chose had several points with selected races, to help with race-day preparation and strategy as well as to incorporate longer training runs into a competitive environment. This proved to be extremely worthwhile since it allowed me to build confidence in my quest to break three hours. The races I competed in were Riley's Rumble (Half-Marathon) on July 24, and the National Capital 20-Miler on September 25. Each race was scheduled to coincide with my long run for that weekend. For the Rumble, I finished in just over 1:30; on an extremely hilly course, I thought that was just about on track for my goal, maybe a little better with more training. For the 20-miler, I finished in 2:15 and change, and felt great at the end. Again, another hilly course but a result which gave me my first solid glimmer of confidence in breaking three hours; basically, at that pace all I'd have to do would be to finish the last 6.2 miles in 44 minutes. Roughly a 7:06 pace, albeit the toughest miles of the marathon. But most importantly, these races answered the question, "How am I doing?" as my training moved forward.
  6. Use science. Part of the book and literature I read talked about maintaining a good heartrate throughout a given workout or race. Yet I had no idea--aside from sweating and panting--how hard or easy I was expending myself. So I bought a Polar HRM and used it for my longer workouts and races. This allowed me to statistically track my workout effort, and kept me from expending too much energy during the session.
  7. Carbo-loading. I'd always thought that this meant a big bowl of pasta the night before a race. Not even close. The concept of carbo-loading is a multi-day process and involves several meals--and snacks--across those days. I'm convinced that along with other nutritional supplements (salt tablets, GU gels, Gatorade/Powerade) taken during the race, carbo-loading is the most effective means of gaining an energy edge in the realm of nutrition.
  8. Know the enemy. At least a week before each of my three races, I did a workout--or more--on the actual course, or in the case of the MCM, a portion thereof. Thus on raceday there were not any surprises with respect to the course, except that instead of a few dozen other runners there were an extra few hundred or 30,000.
  9. Comfortable shoes and socks. This sounds like an obvious no-brainer, but in the past I'd given it less thought than was probably merited. I went with the Asics Gel-DS trainers and some multi-layered crews from Thor-lo (thanks, Nick.)
  10. And last but not least, have a strategy. After putting so much time, effort and dedication into one day, it would be a shame for the gun to sound and suddenly into your head pops the thought, "Uh what???". I'd done my homework, so I knew the course. I'd carefully calculated my target times, and I wrote down certain target splits I wanted to hit along the way. The week before, I'd carefully begun my race-week preparations and carbo-loading to ensure that nothing was left off the schedule. And in my mind I envisioned several times running the race and actual points along the way, including, reluctantly, certain catastophic events which would preclude me from finishing (dehyrdation, injury, etc.). In short: be prepared.

Sounds easy, huh? Now you do it!

Monday, October 31, 2005

10/30/2005 [Marine Corps Marathon]

Workout: 26.2 miles at marathon pace. Ha?

Well, we knocked the bastard off!
- Sir Edmund Hillary, on being first to climb Mt. Everest in 1953

Finishing a marathon is hardly on par with being the first to climb the tallest mountain in the world, but in my own personal universe, this one ranked right up there. The quote was well-ingrained in my mind during the final miles since I’d recently viewed ESPN’s movie Four Minutes as part of my Marathon Week preparations.

Finally, on Sunday, October 30th, nearly five months of fundraising efforts and marathon training came down to the final few hours. As expected, I tossed and turned most of the night before, not so much out of nervousness or excitement but more because I was worried about over-sleeping my alarms. I went through my traditional race morning routine and got a ride in with Mike Coffee around 6:15am.

We parked near the Courthouse area in Arlington and walked down the hill to the marathon start at the Iwo Jima Memorial. It was shaping up to be a near-ideal day, weather-wise, with temperatures in the low 40s, and full sunlight indicating warmer temperatures were on the way. Mike and I did the usual hydrate/recycle several times, and hung out at the Charity Partners tent for a while. Both of us were more than anxious to get rolling, but we still had almost an hour until the start. After some group photos for the Big Brothers-Big Sisters RFK team, we got some inspirational words of wisdom and were dismissed for the next few hours.

I’d done all the physical work, now it was just a matter of executing properly:

- Try to ignore the obvious adrenaline rush and not go too fast at the start
- Go easy on the up hills
- Gain some time when possible on the gentle down hills
- Drink at every stop, and minimize time wasted walking
- Take three gel packs at regular intervals
- Run like the wind

Sounds easy, huh? Since I had more than enough things to remember, I wrote down the critical elements on my forearms with a red Sharpie:
- Target splits (4-27:00, 8-54:00, half-1:28, 16-1:48, 20-2:15, 24-2:42)
- Gel packs at 7 miles, 14, and 21 (OK, I think I could have remembered that).

The bottom line was that I knew if I could reach 20 miles on target I had a good chance of finishing under three hours, and if I made the 24 mile target I had a very good chance.

The course this year had several changes from 2004, and even more since I last ran it in 2003. The starting line was still on Rt. 110, but about 1/4mi. south towards the Pentagon, and the race began heading in a northerly direction towards Rosslyn.

Knowing full well that my target of a sub-3:00 race could hinge on too much time lost in valuable minutes (aka, “fididdling”) at the chaotic start, I squirmed and wedged myself into the corral a mere 20 feet from the actual starting line. With 30 seconds before the starting gun, I popped a salt tablet, had one last swig of water and ripped off my protective garbage bag insulator. With the gun, the latter bag and water bottle were neatly disposed of on the side of the road.

Within minutes of the gun we were rolling through Rosslyn with a good deal of fan support all along the streets. The course moved north up the southbound side of Lee Highway navigating mostly uphill for the first two miles. I was anxious to increase my pace but held back, recalling how disastrous the pace was for me in 2003 (1:30:36/2:01:54).

Around mile 3 as we headed back downhill along Spout Run, I had my first dilemma. In my efforts to get a prime position at the start, I’d foregone my usual 5 minutes-before-the-race bathroom break, and was now questioning whether I should make a quick stop. In the back of my mind I fretted over the lost time versus the possible inconvenience for the next 23 miles or so. In the end, I opted to roll the dice and hope that my body would be efficient enough to sweat out the extra fluid (it did). It didn’t help that I saw more than a couple of other runners at this point pull off for a bathroom stop.

Along this stretch and as we turned onto the GW Parkway, I’d settled into a group of 4-5 other runners keeping the same pace. But either they were much stronger than me or less focused, because there was much chit-chatting going on. It was a good group to run with for two reasons: one, they were all talking about keeping the pace for a sub-3:00 finish; and secondly, there were two women in the group.

For the latter, it had nothing to do with pleasant surroundings. Rather, since I was decked out with no obvious frills to call attention to myself (grey shirt, yellow hat, no name or phrase written anywhere), I was feeding off the attention given to others. Apparently, the two women in the pack were running at numbers 4 & 5, respectively, and also had shirts noting their Navy affiliation. So there was an incessant barrage of shouts for “Go Navy!” and “Way to go, ladies!” Not being either, I was nevertheless content to feed off their energy.

Race progress: 10K actual 40:42 (target 42:00)

I kept with this group through Rock Creek Park and up to the Kennedy Center, just after mile marker 9. At that point, one of the women had begun to move well ahead—I think she finished fourth overall—while most of the rest of the pack faded. The second female and one other runner continued the pace just in front of me. The guy—a tall, long-legged harrier, moved ahead of us both gradually. I stuck with the second female for the stretch along Constitution Avenue; still in my memory was how this was The Wall for me back in 2003, a miserable final 13+ miles. I realized that this year the course had us three miles in advance of that mark from 2003, but mentally the pain lingered.

At roughly mile 11 as we did a quick shim-sham to head up along The Mall, I decided to move ahead of her and see if I could once again pace with the tall guy.

I think the guy’s name was either Rob or Ryan, but the latter seems to coincide with the results I’d checked. I caught up with him again as we entered The Mall area, and began to once again pace behind him. He had a “DC Triathletes” shirt on, which got him more than a few shouts along the way. At mile 12 as we approached the US Capitol, I had my first doubts about reaching my goal. I knew that we were running at a good target pace, but I began to get some heavy legs and, knowing that the loneliness of Hains Point still awaited us, I was unsure if the extra time I’d picked up already would quickly fall by the wayside. Still, I was resigned to ease off the pace a little if necessary, and kept Ryan within sight as we moved across the halfway mark and back down Independence Avenue.

Race progress: Halfway mark (Mile 13.1) actual 01:25:38 (target 01:28:00)

Unlike past years, the stretches along The Mall area were fairly sparse with regards to crowd support, which made these miles even that much more difficult. I imagine that the new course had something to do with this—making getting from different vantage points less navigable—as well as the cooler temperatures which were still in the low 50s. Heading back down Ohio Drive and towards the no-man’s land that is Hains Point, I knew that this upcoming 6-mile stretch through the park was going to make or break me.

For almost the entire length of this out-and-back, it seemed like there was no one else running but the two of us. He gradually moved a bit further ahead, but I still kept him in sight. Likewise, there was almost no one on the sidelines to cheer on the runners. I do remember running by the golf course as a group was teeing off and thinking how ironic—not in the funny sense—it would be to get plunked by an errant tee shot as I ran by. Luckily, this did not happen.

What happened next can only be considered near miraculous. I’d taken another gel at mile 14, well before entering Hains Point. But as we exited the desert and turned back onto Ohio Drive, I suddenly had a new energy level I’d been missing for the past eight miles or so. Perhaps it was the ease with which I started on the exit ramp slope up to the Fourteenth Street Bridge, which I can surely attest to all the extra hills work during my training. Regardless, I began moving along the next 1 ½ mile stretch with relative ease, and it was then that I once again felt confident—almost convinced—that I would finish in under 3:00.

Alas, the feeling was short-lived. In looking back, I almost wonder if it was mental roadblocks that bit me during these miles. Remembering that this year’s course had the Bridge at Mile 20 instead of Mile 23 or later, mentally I was prepared to be “fresher”, having run three less miles at that point of the elongated uphill climb. Ay, but there’s the rub: this also meant that after crossing the Bridge, I’d still have over four miles left to go.

The final stretch went out into Crystal City and looped back. It seemed as if the turnaround was somewhere in Florida, or beyond. The crowd support was much, much better, but I’d already lost a great deal of confidence from my sprint across the Bridge; now, I was ashamed to have so many people along the course seeing me flounder at the worst possible time.

Yet despite an engine that seemed ready to shut down much too soon, my pragmatic mind saved the day. Keeping a close eye on my times and progressive splits as I continued through Crystal City, I realized that I could almost run the last three miles at a 9 or 10 minute pace and still hit my goal. I did the math several times in my head, and each time I was closer and closer to the finish. (Looking back, I probably looked physically worse than I actually was, since I did still manage a 6:58 pace over the final 3.2 miles).

Race progress: 23M actual 2:33:14 (target 2:36:06)

I left the Crystal City area and did a short loop around the Pentagon, and I once again had a renewed sense of confidence. However this time, as I approached the Mile 25 marker, I had little doubt in the outcome. Almost.

As I passed the marker and went under the overpass for Rt. 110, and convinced of the inevitable, I gave myself a congratulatory right fist pump for my efforts. Not more than a few seconds later, I felt a massive cramp in my left calf muscle. Obviously, The Fates frowned upon me celebrating too soon! I slowed to a jog, and then resumed my normal pace. It was still there, and suddenly my mind was racing as to whether I could hobble the last 1.2 miles with such a severe cramp, as well as what might be the physical consequences. I pressed on, hoping that continued motion would work it out…and breathed a sigh of relief when it did.

The homestretch down Rt.110 towards the Iwo Jima Memorial is always filled with an abundant, raucous crowd, and this year was no exception. But unlike some past years, I’d not reached such a point where I was fading in and out of consciousness at times. And knowing that the final turn uphill was not the full ¼ mile as in years past helped me dig for one last respectable burst of energy.

I crossed the finish line at 02:57:33, went a few steps more, then dropped to my knees to kiss the ground. I couldn’t believe I’d finally knocked the bastard off.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Workout: recovery 4mi.

Some training schedules limit this to only 2 or 3 miles, but I wasn't too concerned about doing a whole 4 miles. Besides, after a day of mostly lounging around, I needed to get out for 30 minutes or so.

To make sure I didn't twist an ankle last-second, though, I drove down to the MVT and did my mileage there.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Workout: rest.

No really. Today I need the rest! Aside from a trip to the playground with Booger and some errands around the house, the day was spent concentrating on maximizing energy conservation.

Less than 48 hours to go...

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Workout: recovery + speed 5mi. w/6 X 100m strides

I'm starting to think that the more rest I get, the harder it is to get up out of bed in the morning. Or maybe I'm just running out of gas from the long training schedule. Or maybe it was because I knew the outside temperature was in the low 40s.

Still, the thought that this would be my last real workout (a casual 4mi. jog on Saturday, notwithstanding) before the race allowed me to break from my slumber. It was a fairly straightforward jaunt down to the TCWHS track, a few laps with some sprints, then back.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Workout: dress rehearsal 7mi w/2mi at marathon race pace.

This was the run deferred from yesterday, and indeed a good call--no rain this morning. I did feel some disappointment as I caved in and wore the tights, knit hat and gloves for the first time. But again, this is not a week for machismo in the face of inclement weather.

This was a simple run down to the TCWHS track, five lap warmup, eight laps at a race pace, then five laps to warm down, and back home.

This morning also marked the beginning of my four days of food-gorging, aka "carbo-loading."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Workout: rest.

I was supposed to do Wednesday morning's workout today, but had to decide between the following: staying on schedule (i.e., running Tuesday) or avoiding possible cold/flu conditions from running in the cold, damp rain (i.e., and waiting to run Wednesday AM with the weather reportedly better).

In the end, I opted for the latter, since getting sick a mere five days before the marathon isn't part of my race week preparation.