It’s been a week and a half now since my nearly-flawless marathon in Chicago and I’m still trying to put together what I take away from this race. I’ve always been of the mindset that there’s much more to learn from failure than from success, but this race feels like the exception to the rule, for me. I want to analyze every bit of it and pick out what I did right and make it a part of my marathon training, planning, routine, and strategy going forward.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a personal worst at the New Jersey Marathon—if you exclude the Disney World Marathon and only look at races I’ve raced. To this day, I’ve never toed the starting line of a race more prepared or with more training miles under my belt—I even crushed a 20k five weeks before the race in a nearly exact mirror of my half marathon from three weeks before Chicago. Unfortunately, everything went wrong on race day. Weather was 30-50º warmer than nearly all of my training miles. It was windy as heck that day—the pacers all finished with their little flag sticks broken from it. I felt both dehydrated and uneasy to my stomach from the start. My legs just were not into the idea of running goal pace miles. And I all-around had no energy.
At the time, I chalked this up to overtraining. I assumed I just pushed too hard in training and burned myself out. My second peak week and both taper weeks were a pretty accurate precursor to race day, which felt like further evidence of overtraining. I spent the remainder of 2014 struggling through my running. Every run felt just like the crappiness of New Jersey. It exacerbated my slip into a months long bout with depression that year.
The following spring, I decided I wanted to run Grandma’s Marathon and made adjustments to my training plan to try to avoid the overtraining. Training went well for the first eleven or twelve weeks. Then I started feeling as I had the year before. Things feel apart. I felt like shit while running again. I started struggling through runs and I had zero energy. Two weeks before the race, I decided to DNS. I wasn’t where I wanted to be and I didn’t have the guts to fight it out on race day. A year and a half later, I’m now regretting that decision. I had good reason at the time and even thought I might have been developing an overuse injury. I don’t think I was. I should have raced instead of cheering through tears.
After that failure, I made a visit to my doctor to try to find the root cause of my problems. I had my theories as to why my energy levels kept crashing to zero and getting in the way of my running, but I needed blood work to confirm. It turned out that my hypothesis, which my doctor agreed with, was wrong. I actually had a severe vitamin D deficiency. Not to mention my testosterone was practically zero, but that was of no surprise. I started taking supplements, changed up my hormones, and lowered my testosterone blocker dosage.
A few months later, running started feeling good again, but it was too late to race another marathon before my surgery. So I had to go into surgery having started running well again and knowing I’d be out for at least six weeks.
When I was finally ready to start marathon training again, I wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted to be. I hadn’t been running consistently again after surgery long enough to build my base to where it normally is before I needed to switch gears into actual training mode for Chicago. I made a very non-aggressive training plan and set aside my hopes of a BQ and big PR. I was a little disappointed, but I knew going into surgery that this was the most likely outcome.
Much to my surprise, training quickly fell right into place and I started nailing my runs. I hadn’t planned any speed work into my plan on purpose, but I was destroying my mid-week long runs of 8-10 miles. Each became an unplanned tempo run and each was faster than the week before. I started setting unofficial 5k and 10k PRs during them. I felt unstoppable. These runs were fast. The fastest miles I’d run since I transitioned. I kept waiting for training to fall apart because it just felt too good to be true. I got my testosterone level checked, 100% expecting it to be higher than when I was still on blockers. It had to be.
So that theory went out the window.
Throughout training, faster and faster times kept feeling easier and easier. I started struggling to keep my pace at 8:00. I was feeling very comfortable 7:30-7:45 and I run by effort so that’s what I ran at. Additionally, my heart rate was the lowest I’ve seen it seen I started tracking it.
On the flip side, a couple of my long runs were busts and my overall mileage was the lowest it’d been for marathon training in years. In my head, I was focused on the number of miles and seeing that as what would be my undoing. What I kept consciously dismissing was how many of the miles that I did do were significantly under goal marathon pace.
Here’s where I’ll mention that by week eight, I secretly changed my goal from “just have a good race and stay healthy, spring will be a BQ attempt” to “fuck everything, I’m going all in for that mythical 3:30 time I really want.”
Three weeks before Chicago, I kicked ass at the Newport Liberty Half Marathon. It wasn’t the best race day execution I’ve ever had, but my time was solid and perfectly in line with a 3:30 marathon. Unfortunately, that was the last good run I had until the marathon. Based on this race alone, I was ready to go for it in Chicago. Based on the three weeks between this race and Chicago, I doubted my ability to even make it through the race uninjured.
So that was everything leading up to the race. What was it that got me there?
After analyzing as much of the race as I can, I’m giving credit to all those fast miles I kept throwing down.
It’s, what I’m calling, the Disney effect. Over the last five years, I’ve done the Goofy Challenge (half marathon and marathon on back-to-back days) three times and Dopey Challenge (5k, 10k, half marathon, and marathon over four days) once. Each year, I go into these races woefully unprepared. The last two years, I had zero business running a marathon at all, let alone one after doing other races. But each year, feel fucking fantastic. I negative split and I have tons left in the tank by the finish line. The reason it works out is I run these races much slower than I typically run my miles. I run them for fun, I don’t care about time. I try very hard to run as slow as I can. Even though my legs don’t have the miles on them, they are never working very hard during the race. They’re running easy and aren’t fatiguing quickly.
This was also the case in Chicago. Sure, I was running much faster than Disney (31 minutes faster than my fastest Disney Marathon), but I was running much slower than a very large amount of my training miles. The pace didn’t tax my legs the way other marathons I’ve raced do. This allowed me to keep my goal pace while not depleting the tank in the first half to two-thirds of the race.
Sure, I could probably have ran the last few miles even faster with more training miles under my belt, but let’s be honest, I can’t complain about anything here.
Now, of course, this isn’t the only story. Your training doesn’t make for a great race. There were assists along the way. A great race takes planning, hard work, discipline, confidence, and luck.
The leg pain I had during taper, while robbing me of my last long run, meant I got plenty of rest and toed the line with very fresh legs. And more than just the rest, but it made me go to physical therapy three times in two weeks to get my legs massaged and it forced me to actually thoroughly foam roll every day. It was like a blessing in disguise.
Another big factor was being free of my testosterone blocker. I knew the side-effects for it held me back a little, but it wasn’t until it was out of my system that I felt just how much it was. The only positive side-effect from my blocker was the extra potassium in my body, but the loss of that wasn’t as noticeable as I expected it to be.
I also think I nailed my carbo-loading. Maybe not nailed, but I ate a lot of carbs and really focused on making sure that’s where my calories were coming from in the three days before the race. While this is sort of a hard thing to measure, the fact that I had plenty of energy through all 26.2 miles is likely a good indication.
Additionally, I focused on my race plan and stuck to it. I mentally broke up the race into small, manageable chunks. I took it one bit at a time and never let the weight of “oh my god, there are still X miles left” get to me. My first mile was too fast when you look at the time, but was exactly right in terms of the effort and feel. After that, I repeated my plan and strategy over and over in my head during the race. I mean, it was pretty constant. I kept that focus strong. it kept me from getting stupid. Even when I wanted to push a little extra in the middle miles, I listened to the smart voice in my head telling me to hold it back and save it for later. I took my gels throughout the race and I took water at every stop in the first half. I only stopped taking water when I was 100% confident in my hydration level being good for the rest of the race. And that’s something I was only able to do because I know my body and I know my hydration. Training through a hot summer was invaluable here.
And finally, there were all the other things that just went right. I pooped race morning, which I never do. I had good hydration. The weather was fantastic.—cool with only a slight wind and no rain. I timed my morning perfectly to minimize the amount of time I spent standing around on my feet waiting for the race to start. It was a flat course with great crowd support. And there was a big cheer section of people I know literally exactly when I needed it. I really can’t overstate how much that boosted me going into the last 15k. It was like a short of adrenaline that lasted and lasted.
When everything goes right on race day, it’s easy to have a good race and that’s what happened. But a lot of those little things that all add up aren’t things you can control. So the takeaway here is the training and the focus on my race plan. My mindset for the last four years that I need to be putting in more miles to race better was flawed. It’s not about the number of miles. It’s about the quality. Sure, your body needs to build the endurance to go the distance, but quality over quantity. I don’t mean to say I didn’t run quality miles before, but the pace of my runs was always second to the distance in past training cycles.
Going forward, yes, I want to run more miles than I did this time. But I’m going to stop making the quantity the end-all be-all of training.
(I’m on the right in the video below. You can see the moment I realized my time at about 5 seconds in.)