Week Twelve: Chicago Marathon Training

Last week’s training ended on a perfect note. I ran 13 miles all the way through at race pace with no pain and, for the first time, felt like I wasn’t just talking about my goal to run my fifth marathon in Chicago. I knew that a perfect run also presented some physical as well as mental downsides. Physically, would this hip injury thing creep up on me again and how bad would it be? Mentally, can I keep a surge of relief and accomplishment from turning into pride and complacency? Week Twelve would reveal that to me.

Sometimes it's better to just stop when you know you can't go on.
Sometimes it’s better to just stop when you know you can’t go on.

The challenge in training through this injury is that I have to find where the very subtle line between over-doing it exists, and it’s a moving target. All day Monday, I didn’t think going for a run was a good idea, but the pool has been closed for a week now so my main method of cross-training has been eliminated (as if I need another challenge right now). Alternatively, I felt nervous about trying spinning for the first time before a marathon and nauseated at the idea of what I feel like is prancing on the elliptical (I hate the elliptical), so really, my only thought was, “Well, I gueeeess I’ll try running….” even though I didn’t want to or feel like it was a good idea. I was right. I could only get through about half a mile before I realized it was a lost cause to go any further. At best, I predicted I could get through 3 miles, and my training plans were to replace those short 3-milers with cross-training, so really I knew that running anyways was not going to help me as much as, say, water running (I miss you, pool!!!) I walked home trying not to feed the discouraged thoughts of, “How could I have had a perfect, painless run yesterday and now I can’t get through a lousy 3-miler?” by reminding myself that I intended to cross-train but felt lost without the pool as an option. I can’t lie– I felt more ready for the marathon before having run that 13-miler than I did after having run it. I hate this balancing act with a passion.

Photo Courtesy: Sandlot Stats Yogi-isms via Pinterest
Photo Courtesy: Sandlot Stats Yogi-isms via Pinterest

Tuesday morning, I had another appointment with the physical therapist. I told him about how well I ran on Sunday, but that Monday was nearly impossible to run. I’m still trying to process what was said, what wasn’t said, what was implied, and what wasn’t implied in my half-hour session, but I do know that I walked back to my office with a dull burn of reality permeating my senses. The implication wasn’t that I couldn’t run, but really it will all come down to where I am on race day morning, and that I can train as hard as I am physically able to in the next 32 days and I can have the positive no-expectations “I’m here for the party” attitude about it, but none of that will guarantee that I can run the race that day. But then again, that could happen to any runner– and it does all the time. I got back to the office and all I could focus on was the race. My co-worker asked what was on my mind and I told her, and she said that mentally, I’m ready to run my fifth marathon, which is something that a lot of people aren’t prepared to do. So, even if I have had the physical shortfalls stacking the odds against me, I’ve got what it takes mentally to run the race and finish. I needed to hear it. No, mental preparation is not going to guarantee that I can cross the finish line, but just like Yogi Berra said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” And yes— I do prefer to cut my pizza Yogi Berra style: “Better make it four [slices]. I dunno if I can eat six.” I’ll take all 26.2 miles, 7.5 miles at a time.

This is my "I hate the elliptical" face.
This is my “I hate the elliptical” face.

Later that evening, I decided I wasn’t quite up for a run. Or maybe I was and I didn’t know it. Whatever it was, I felt more compelled to cross-train than to run….even if it meant that I had to suck it up and get on the elliptical. I hate the elliptical. I really, really, really hate it. I read an article once that basically said the only good an elliptical does is burn calories and that you’re better off running (duh) or biking if you’re trying to use cardio to lose weight. It doesn’t do much to strengthen anything or tone anything, and I have totally believed this. Plus, it feels like I am prancing and bouncing and just shifting my weight around on a machine that is far too elevated to be anything less than a display. I hate the elliptical. But without a pool to swim and run laps, I really had no choice but to suck it up and climb aboard. Fortunately, I had my Kindle loaded up with episodes of “Suits” so I watched, bounced, watched, pranced, and watched until I hit 50 minutes and decided I’d had enough of bouncing and prancing. I kept my “pace” at a steady 10…whatever the hell that means…and I felt my quads were working, plus I’ve been told the rhythm of moving is the same as running so my muscles should be training for a run without actually running. I suppose I will believe this, too, even though I was totally annoyed with having only “gone” 1.35 miles. Seriously, the elliptical sucks. I topped off my hour at the gym with my PT exercises and some kettleball squats and then I was really done. I’d have much rather been outside swimming or running, but at least I did something, right? If I have to alternate running with that stupid machine for the next 32 days, I will have definitely earned that Chicago Marathon medal.

Thursday, my legs were still pretty sore from Tuesday evening, but I couldn’t bear the idea of another night off from running. Today was the 13th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, so I was already in a sort of weird mood to begin with. This day is a hard day for anyone. We’re all remembering where we were and what the world was like before this tragedy. It was my 6th September 11th anniversary in DC, so I knew that there’d be a lot of remembrances around town and the police presence would be higher than normal. But with my apartment close to the Pentagon, it was hard not to imagine dark smoke billowing from the Pentagon as I sat backwards on a Metro train heading into the city. It was a dark image that crossed my mind as I remembered what today represents: thirteen years into this “then and now” shift. Later that morning, as a co-worker and I headed to a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, we were stopped to allow the President’s motorcade to pass by. He was on his way to the Pentagon for a ceremony. Seeing things like this makes me so grateful that I am back in DC because it sort of makes that day and all the innocence of my 19 years at the time a little more real. If it happened now, I’d know who did it and why and I could guess what would happen after it, but back then, I remember thinking to myself, “But we don’t fight wars on American soil.” Thirteen years later, I had an office near the White House and an apartment near the Pentagon. Thirteen years ago, I was shaken into the reality of caring.

There was no way I could take the day off when I work so close to the National Mall, so I decided to try for a 7-miler. Starting out, I could actually feel the perfection in my stride and posture. This is the post-physical therapy realm of bliss: everything has been reset and I have no pain and I can just run. It was a 92-degree evening, so I wanted to go slow, but my legs were feeling incredible. I decided it was well worth my while to push my pace and just get in a strong run. Running along the National Mall has been my favorite place in the world to run. I used to work on Capitol Hill where it was easy to just slip on your running digs and run a quick 5-miler to the Lincoln Memorial and back. If you wanted to add on an extra mile, you could run across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery, turn around and come back or you could loop the Reflecting Pool and World War II Memorial for a pretty flat and fast mile. I adore running the National Mall, but it doesn’t come without a few annoyances: numerous intersections where work-weary drivers sneak up on you and nearly hit you in their rush to get home, hundreds of dazed tourists who weave all over the sidewalk and move to their “other right” when you call to them “on your right!” Still, once you hit a clean path forward and you’ve got the Washington Monument towering above you and the glow of the Lincoln in the twilight, it really does stoke a sense of patriotic sentiment that makes playing Frogger with tourists and Parquor with psycho drivers quite worth it. Even after all this time, it still hasn’t gotten old yet.

 Friday and Saturday were rest days. Not quite something I planned. Friday after work, and still tired from my 7-miler, I had to run some errands (because I’m super cool) but moreover, I didn’t feel like I had carbed up nearly enough to run 16 miles the next morning. I just didn’t really have a strong appetite Friday night– the best I could do were several handfuls of Cheez-Its. Don’t hate me– this never happens. I usually always have a craving for something unhealthy. Saturday morning, I woke up feeling hungover from sleep. Again, I didn’t feel ready to run. All I am trying to do right now is do right by my body, so I like to give it what it wants instead of work it to death before the big race, and Saturday it wanted sleep and rest. I did take some time to put together a shelf that I had just bought and weirdly, while leaning over one of the panels I had just assembled to screw in one of the flatheads which required an awkward butt in the air pose for about 3 minutes, I felt the muscles in my backside being worked to death and, when I retreated, they felt like they’d just gone through an hour of kick-boxing class. I’m not sure how that happened, but it took an easy elliptical workout off the table for that day. The last thing I needed before a big run was sore glutes. But sore glutes I got.

Saturday rest day
Saturday rest day
Saturday was a hot tea and Netflix day.

Sunday morning was brutal. I’ve vocalized here a million times that I am positively absolutely not a morning person. Even though I knew Sunday was going to be a very busy day and I had no choice but to get my long run done early, I was still not okay with it when I rolled out of bed at 6AM. I was monstrously dehydrated. I’d carbed-up on waffles the night before (note to self: find a lower-sodium pancake mix or just make your own!) and, despite drinking 3 Nalgenes throughout Saturday, I was thirsty as hell. So, I sat down with another Nalgene, a cup of instant coffee, and a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in front of “How I Met Your Mother.” An hour later and down a Nalgene, I felt hydrated enough to make a go of it. The morning was pretty cold– down to 55 degrees when Thursday was 92 degrees in the evening– and I was short on running clothes with a pile of laundry the size of a giant anthill. I decided to wear a long sleeve shirt that I knew I could trust to keep me cool as the day got warmer– I’ve worn it on in-between days with no trouble. I’d have preferred arm warmers, but I was short on running tanks. Arm warmers make me feel like a superhero and weirdly have a ballerina feel to them that stokes my long-lost childhood dream of taking ballet classes, so I really love in-between running weather  forecasts like this. I’d later come to tell myself that, when in doubt, always opt for arm warmers. I stopped at Starbucks on my warm-up walk to the trail where I picked up a double-shot of espresso before taking off.

Prior to this run, I was feeling really nervous. Last week’s 13-miler had gone perfectly. Better than I could have planned it. It had gone so well, in fact, that I knew if I ran the marathon like that, it might possibly be my best race yet. It seemed like a lot of pressure going into this weekend’s run having only run 7 miles earlier that week. But I decided to stick to my training goals of dropping any expectations, letting go of my addiction to pace times, and just run the way I felt like I could run and enjoy listening to music as I went. Let the run take care of itself. Being in the game mentally and just knowing that I was bound and determined to finish the Chicago Marathon and that I’d be happy with any pace time I could get given a rocky training season was the best thing I could have done for myself to get my training back on track.

The first two miles were kind of rough. I felt like I wasn’t awake yet and I could feel my injury starting to creep its way into my form. I was breathing kind of heavy for going somewhere in the neighborhood of 11:47-12:09 per mile, but I tried to find my center and focus on setting the pace precedent that would carry me through. At mile three, I could feel myself settling into a sustainable pace. I even felt like I could comfortably go a little faster, so I pushed the pace ever so slightly and got down under 11:30. I was fine with that pace– I had a long way to go and didn’t want to burn out early. Plus, I had unwittingly chosen for the first 8-miles of my planned out-and-back course a part of the Arlington, Virginia trail system that is purely loathsome. The DC metro area has some of those most beautiful trails I’ve ever had the privilege to run on– most are tree-lined and form a canopy that even on bleak winter days still makes running feel like a dream; however, the leg that splits off from the popular and crowded Mount Vernon trail and turns into the desolate Four Mile Run through South Arlington is everything less than aesthetic. It’s a connector trail that runs alongside a reservoir with a water treatment plant, a busy tree-less highway and past a couple of rather hideous industrial/strip mall/rough-tumble apartment complexes; plus, I have seen too many sketchy characters along this trail to make me feel safe there. You just have to get through it. On a run like this, I didn’t want my hatred for this leg of my run to be a reason to run faster for the sake of getting off of that trail, thus  forcing me to burn out of energy halfway through when I would have to turn around and run it again to get back.

About five miles into my run, I could feel my pace getting faster and dipping down around 10:50-11:00. Ordinarily, this might have set off some alarm bells in my head, but this time I really felt like I was running quite comfortably and I didn’t see a reason to slow down. I know my training philosophy right now is to pay attention to how my body is feeling and not push it if I didn’t feel like I had it in me, but why couldn’t that work in the reverse? If it was easy for me to slow down if I didn’t feel like I had it, why couldn’t I push the pace if I felt like I could? So I did. I maintained that pace for the next two miles. Around mile 7, I realized that I was feeling the coveted second wind that I hadn’t felt in probably years– that moment when you’re kind of running on auto-pilot and your breathing isn’t as labored as a panic attack and nothing really hurts and the endorphins are flooding your system with the kind of rosiness that makes you want to high-five everyone you see. It was starting to turn into the kind of run that you push yourself through months of burnout and frustration and pain to experience. I couldn’t even believe that it was me running. Who was this runner girl out here and where has she been!?

At the halfway point, I realized that I was already too far into the best parts of the Arlington trail system to want to turn around and go back. As soon as I got off the W & OD trail and took the Custis Trail heading East, I knew I would be here for the next 8 miles. The Custis Trail in Arlington heading East has a lot of hills. I used to live near its origin and I’m familiar with the hills that it has. A couple of them are so steep you feel like you are scaling a wall. In the past, I used to huff and puff my way up these hills. Today I practically darted up them, reaching the tops of several of them without having missed a breath and no typical burning in my quads. I might as well have flown to the tops of those hills. Around mile 10, my paces started dipping under 10:30 and, at one point, I stopped to refill my water bottle after taking a Gu to see that I had clocked a 10:02 split for my 9th mile. I was astonished– I barely even felt tired! I decided that the next 6 miles, all bets were off. If I could run fast, I would.

And so I did. The next 6 miles, I clocked splits at paces ranging between 9:58 and 10:15. It felt effortless. Even as, at this point, the sun was climbing higher in the sky and my long-sleeve shirt decision was turning into a regret, I may as well have been flying. Looking back, as I write this, I have no explanation for why I was able to run so fast at the tail end of a long run. I gotta tell you– this has NEVER happened. In all my long, long runs, I have never been able to simulate what I have read constantly is a good marathon strategy of starting out slow and running slower and easy for the first several miles and then picking up the pace and ending with a bang. My last mile was a 9:51 split. Instead of feeling that “thank God it’s done” feeling that I usually get after a long run, I wanted to keep going. When I saw the average pace on my Garmin at the end of the run, I was on top of the world. Average 10:46 pace. 16 miles in 2:52:55. If I sustain that pace during the marathon, I will very likely finish with a 4:42. I can’t even comprehend that, after everything I have been through.

Red-faced and thrilled after a perfectly-executed long run
Red-faced and thrilled after a perfectly-executed long run

THAT is how training for a marathon should feel.

THAT is why I keep coming back.

THAT is why I will never quit, so long as I am physically able to run.

I’m writing this on Monday, and I still can’t believe yesterday was so great. I’m astounded with myself. I can’t even believe myself right now; I’m just so proud. I can’t believe I haven’t given up yet. I can’t believe I haven’t stopped trying. I wonder what else is out there that I can’t throw a hand up and say, “You’re messing with the wrong girl.” Some people have told me that I should find something else to do; that maybe running Chicago and marathons in general isn’t a good idea. I’m not going to say it has been easy ignoring their comments that, to them, are ignorant and said out of concern. I don’t blame them, but I do find words like that to be condescending. They are wrong. I belong at the starting line on October 12, that all of the running and the training has been great for me.

I believe in myself when others can’t or don’t. I know what I want and I know I will get it. I hope but I plan, too. And I work HARD. I have not been afraid to look at myself in the mirror either. I am not deterred easily, and I fight like hell. I have courage to try. I am brave enough to handle my shortfalls. I know now that I am amazing and I have the heart of an athlete.

And yes, all of that has come from running.

Week Thirteen is peak week. It doesn’t feel like peak week because of everything I have missed. I’m scared as hell— this whole delicate balance of training and over-training feels like I’m trying to catch a butterfly; like even blinking will scare it away. So I’m trying to get down to the basics. My plan is to get to bed an hour earlier every night, focus on eating nutritious recovery foods, cross-train with the elliptical every other day with a mid-week long run, see my physical therapist for a pre-long run appointment, and try to focus. September has been the best month of my training life so far and I deserve to celebrate, but I know that I have to balance the glory of having two perfect back-to-back long runs with the practical side of not over-training and getting enough training. As well, the idea of a 4:42 finish is intoxicating but I need to stick to my guns and focus on executing a race that is free of expectation and full of pride in myself and celebrating the journey of running my 5th marathon. I can’t let my heads stay in the clouds but I refuse to bury my head below ground with a complacent-cocky, “I’ve so got this….” attitude. The marathon is one run out of a many in a training season; it is the privilege of having enough discipline to train over months of minutes and hours. I haven’t proven anything yet except that I’ve got what it takes.

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