Week Thirteen: Chicago Marathon Training

I’m really looking forward to the Chicago Marathon; as in, can it be here already? I started out with a goal to be process-oriented in my training and let the goal of a finish time take care of itself. Each training season has come with a set of life lessons– one mile at time, don’t ever give up, look at what is in front of you and not what is behind you. This training season, I have learned how to be present and let go of expectations. I’m learning that I can still surprise myself and that life can surprise me, too. Being process-oriented means embracing the present, and I have been learning how to accept the runner I am right now instead of fighting so hard to be the runner I want to be right now. I miss my days running 8:20-9:00 paces, but I know I will get back there again. People wonder how running can enrich your life, and I’m telling you– it’s in the small things.

This week, I needed running more than ever. Monday was a rest day after my successful 16-miler. Tuesday, with a friend in town and my stubbornness about moving my workout to the morning, became another rest day. Taking two days off after running long has somehow seemed to take the edge off of my hip injury, in addition to cross-training, dry-needling, foam rolling, and strengthening exercises, at least enough to get me through one more run. It’s terrifying because I’m really trying to stave off my injury coming back that will sideline me for the big race. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’m ready for this race to happen already; so I can feel like a casual jaunt isn’t going to sideline me a mere 3 weeks out from a race I’ve already booked a flight and hotel for and may possibly have my parents come to see me finish.

Calm evening by the Tidal Basin
Calm evening by the Tidal Basin

Wednesday was a tough as hell day. As in the fan was spewing shit from every facet of my life and it was time to throw your hands up in the air. After a hard day, I like to joke that “I need a drink” or that I just want to go to bed and get the day over with, but all day Wednesday, all I wanted was a run. I was dying to get some things thought out, to feel like kicking ass at my run was the same thing as expertly figuring out all the shit in my head. I first got into running because there is catharsis in the act of running, of pounding the pavement, of fighting and chasing and releasing. Running doesn’t solve your problems just like alcohol or an unjustifiably early bedtime doesn’t either, but when you feel like you can’t kick ass at the two-person dynamic things in life– love, professional relationships, friendship, family– at least you can kick ass at running. It’s the only way to not let the messy stuff keep me down.

For Wednesday’s run, I was really behind on doing laundry so I was wearing a pair of shorts that I usually only race in because they’re so damn short that they don’t belong in general society. I’d also forgotten a sports bra. Luckily for me, this wasn’t a huge issue so I just decided to (criiiinge) wear the one I had on. Whatever, I didn’t care, worse things have happened to runners, it was only going to be for about an hour, yeah yeah yeah. Just get me out there. As much as I needed to run, I was feeling emotionally vacant. When I feel that overwhelmed, I just want to be still and think, but I knew a run was the answer.

Wednesday evening on the National Mall. I’m so blessed to live here.

I started out from my office on Pennsylvania Avenue, dodging tourists on what was a perfect fall evening with the sun casting golden light on everything and making the scene surreal. And running by the monuments centers me because even on my worst days, I feel extraordinarily blessed to call Washington, DC my home. As I was running, I was really charging forward. Not thinking, just pounding the pavement. Flying past tour groups, feeling unstoppable. Across the Arlington Memorial Bridge at rush hour, passing cars grid-locked and edging forward. My legs took me farther than they lurched. The urge to stop and think was starting to catch up to me since I was going so fast that I actually had to start thinking about pace and maintaining energy. I told myself to slow down if needed, desperate to get that glazed-over feeling in my eyes as I stared ahead at the trail I would be punishing with my speed and hammering out the shit in my head with a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline with a twist of “Come and get me– I’m bothered by nothing.” I sped down the Mount Vernon Trail and back onto the George Mason Bridge to cross back into the district. The Tidal Basin looked spectacular. I stopped at the base of the Washington Monument, deciding that I got what I needed but I had to think, too. I don’t believe in hiding behind placebos. There’s a difference between hiding behind something, using something as a Band-Aid to cover up what you’d prefer not to deal with, but there is courage in confronting it, at looking yourself in the mirror and knowing that even if you can’t control everything in your life, at least you can face yourself.

This song sums up my Wednesday rather splendidly:

Thursday, after 9 days since my last physical therapy appointment, I decided that the achiness and tightness I was feeling in my hips was driving me to a level of insanity that I just plain didn’t want to deal with. I made an appointment with my PT for later that afternoon, and the surprise I got when I said that I ran 16 perfect and painless miles that weekend reinforced that I was indeed getting better and I could start pushing my appointments to about 10 days in between. This makes me nervous, with the race so close, but I’m trying to remind myself that it’s because I am getting better and stronger and my body is getting back to being at a level that I can have a successful race. My PT expects that I will be in a few more times before the race and suggested that I finish peak week and start a taper of dropping things down by 1/3 every week until the race. So, if I was doing 20 reps of one particular exercise, make it 14 reps….then 8 reps…and then just 2 to activate the muscle during race week. I know I have had two very successful long runs and a number of great mid-week higher mileage runs in the time I have been receiving physical therapy, but I admit that it is a crutch now and I have to start weaning myself from treatment and being everything I need to be for myself. That really scares me when all I want to do is remain consistent until the race. I have to fight the urge to expect that I will finish with a 4:42, just like I predicted I would if my marathon goes as well as my 16-miler, and remind myself that the goal is to finish what I started and let the finish time take care of itself.

Back here again...
Back here again…

Friday came around and I realized, damn, I need to snap out of this emotional cold front FAST. I knew I had a planned 18-20 mile run this weekend, but I barely got through 4 miles without feeling a hole in my heart large enough to make me stop. How I could have gone from hot to cold so fast, well, I have my own thoughts about it. But I knew that I needed to move past it as quickly as I could so I could get my long run done. Even if it wasn’t going to be perfect like the last 2 long runs I had just experienced, it needed to happen. With more resting than training, peak week was shaping up to be a lost cause. Yes, it’s better to start the marathon having under-trained than over-trained; however, I was already border-lining that. Thinking ahead to “tapering,” my goal will be to tackle my weekday runs with the same intentions: a couple of short fast runs and a long-ish run with a 12-miler next weekend and an 8-miler the week before the race. But I couldn’t run them without letting go of what was bothering me so damn much. Friday’s run, I wasn’t in a great mental and emotional place, but I got out there just the same….and 0.31 miles later, I realized that this run was NOT going to happen. I started out way too fast– 8:45– and had to drop my pace back but realized that, coupled with my mental and emotional absence, my hip injury was not going to let me have peace and I didn’t have what was needed to ignore it and keep going. I resorted to the elliptical that evening, not happy about opting for the cross-trainer and feeling impatient for the race to be here already so I could take time away from training and the feeling of inadequacy for not making it happen that day.

Putting my desk together on a rest day
Putting my desk together on a rest day

Saturday, I took a day to rest before my 20-miler. I was incredibly nervous about it. Having had two perfect long runs this month, I felt some pressure for a three-peat. I also wondered if this was stupid for me to do. Ordinarily, in any marathon training plan, you build up on long mileage for a couple of weeks, drop back to recover the next week, and then make a bigger push for more mileage, drop back the next week, etc. until you get to the weekend of 20 miles. If I’d had more time, this weekend would have been a 12-miler to recover from pushing up from virtually nothing to 13 miles, then 16 miles. But I didn’t have that time– I had to run 20 miles this weekend or not at all before the race.

Carbo-loading with vanilla waffles and pumpkin beer.
Carbo-loading with vanilla waffles and pumpkin beer.

Sunday morning came and, in true not-a-morning-person fashion, I slept through several alarms and woke up realizing that I really needed to get my butt out of bed. Sunday was expected to be a hot one. The time to get my run done in comfortable temps was closing fast. I sat down with a Nalgene and a bowl of cereal, but was feeling kind of queasy. The sun was coming up– it was already almost 7AM and I had intended to be out on the trail by no later than 7:30. I pushed it off, unable to shake the queasiness in my stomach. I didn’t actually leave until 8:30, making a stop at Starbucks first for my usual double shot of espresso. The morning was still cool, and I thought, “How hard is this going to be?”

Pre-long run espresso double shot.
Pre-long run espresso double shot.

The first 5 miles were like floating on air, running-wise. It took a mile or two to get a good rhythm going. I started out a little too fast and had to remind myself to take it slow and easy the first couple of miles. The second mile was a little TOO slow. I had to pick up the pace and decided that my goal pace would be around 11:30 for all 20 miles. Once I got my rhythm down, I realized I had another majorly annoying problem: my Yurbuds. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that my Yurbuds somehow– my guess is the remote on the cords– activates Siri on a basis that makes constant seem complacent. Literally, every other step I took, I heard that dreaded double-ring that means Siri is activated so I’d have to reach over and press the home key on my iPhone to turn off Siri but every once in awhile, it would pause the music or skip a song or somehow make the song play three times as fast and it would be hectic noise in your ears. During mile two, it happened probably every 15-45 seconds and I ran that mile in the neighborhood of 11:30 minutes. You can see why this was driving me bonkers, plus it was wasting a lot of energy to reach over and figure out what was going on– my head would be down, my arms wouldn’t be assisting my stride, I was wavering all over the path. Ugh. I stopped on my third mile split to disable Siri and put the phone in airplane mode (which I don’t like to do because then that negates the whole reason I bring my phone with me to run), and thankfully this seemed to stop the problem. The only thing I was grateful for was that I figured out how to solve the problem during a “dress rehearsal” run and not the actual marathon.

Mile Five
Mile Five

At mile five, feeling majorly relaxed and on track for a good run, I set off heading south on the Mount Vernon Trail. I’ve never really run here before– not having a car last time I lived here meant I was relegated only to the trails near my home. I sucked down a root beer Gu and tried to keep my pace steady. The trail was spectacular. I felt like I was running through a jungle with all the trees lush and green in the mid-morning sun. I stopped a couple of times for pictures (something that I realize increasingly is becoming a habit I can’t afford because my muscles get cold and cramped). The trail was a little hillier toward the back 2.5 miles of my first 10 out, which got me more fatigued. At one point, the trail wound through a neighborhood and I lost my tree cover and could feel the effects of the sun, now starting to burn hotter. I also felt an exhaustion take me over, the kind of exhaustion that a lack of sleep gives you. But I was 10 miles away from home and knew there was only one way to get back.

Gorgeous Mount Vernon Trail, circa mile 7
Gorgeous Mount Vernon Trail, circa mile 7

I turned around at mile 10, sucked down a chocolate raspberry Gu Proctane, and tried to find that mental zone in my head where I could just run. I realized I had been looking at my Garmin way too frequently during the first 10 miles– only to try and keep a consistent pace– but I knew that the success I’d had the past two weeks was due to running how I felt and not by the pace on the watch. So, I decided to run that way for the next 5 miles. I stopped only once to refill my water bottle. Thankfully, the tree cover kept things cool for the third quarter of the run; however, I looked down at my Garmin around mile 14 and realized I was about to clock an 8:34 split. I had barely even felt like I was running super fast, but I knew I had 6 miles left and this was WAY too fast. I stopped to catch my breath and started up again, finishing my 15 miles feeling completely and utterly exhausted. I was so tired at mile 15 that I stopped for longer than time to refill my water bottle. I was at a small pavilion underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and I walked around that a couple of times. I was ready to give up. My feet were killing me, I was exhausted. The sun was burning hotter. I knew it was going to be a long finish.

Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve
Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve

Taking a small break did seem to help and it got me through another two miles with relatively neutral spirits. The sun, however, was very high in the sky– it was nearly noon– and my form-fitting black tank and black compression socks were starting to bake against my skin. I felt like I was running with a sweater on. Plus, I could feel my Achilles tendon being pulled and I’d already endured numerous leg cramps and fought the urge to let them buckle my knees. I was fading fast. At mile 17, the trail opened up along a treeless stretch of path. It felt impossible. The arches of my feet were throbbing, my Achilles tendon was nearly screaming, the muscle cramps were coming in waves, and I was hot as hell with only a little bit of water left in my bottle and no known water fountain ahead of me for two miles. Being two miles away from home, I tried to convince myself to keep going– that I was now running in 90 degrees so of course my pace was going to suffer, that I was going to have to walk the two miles home anyways so I might as well just run them, that I announced on social media that I was going to run 20 miles today so I might as well just run. But then the thought occurred to me that I was possibly pushing too hard, that I would get my 20 miles in because I’d have to walk them, that my now 12:00 pace was going to sink my time. I stopped at mile 18 with 2 miles left to go. Every single step hurt like hell. My arches were screaming, my legs felt like broken toothpicks. I walked the last 2 miles home, desperate for an ice bath or anything that would stop my feet from feeling like I was walking barefoot on knives. I felt a little defeated. I wanted to run all 20 miles– I had run all 18. But I also stopped out of overwhelming concern that I was pushing way too hard and I wanted the marathon more. If that was the actual marathon, I might have been able to keep going. I would have been in rough shape and probably walked a lot more. I’d have stopped to Biofreeze my arches or cut off my compression socks. Sucked down more PowerAde and water and threw the rest on me. I know I could have kept going– I had the mental energy. But with only 3 weeks to the marathon, I was too scared that I would injure myself further. If I wasn’t 2 miles away from home, I could have kept going, but I walked those last 2 miles. That has to be something.

I feel defeated, but I’m not disappointed with my long run. I ran it at a good pace. I ran the whole thing, too– all 18 miles. And my pace was decent, all things considered. A pace like that, provided I hold it consistently all 26.2 miles, would land me a 4:56 marathon in Chicago. Not the 4:42 that last week’s 16-mile or the 4:48 that my 13-mile pace would get me, but I have a fairly decent idea of how I will finish this race. I will have to study my past runs and learn how to hold my paces consistently. I find that I run faster without looking at my Garmin, so I may have to hide that during the race. I’ll practice that with next week’s 12-miler.

My plan for tapering is to alternate cross-training with running. Elliptical today, 6-8 miles Tuesday, elliptical on Wednesday, 4-6 miles on Thursday, elliptical Friday, rest Saturday, 12 miles on Sunday. The week after that the same thing, only an 8-mile run on Sunday. The week of the marathon will be elliptical Monday, 4 miles Tuesday, elliptical Wednesday, 3-4 miles Thursday, and then rest Friday and Saturday. In the middle of all that will be physical therapy appointments and exercises, a LOT of sleeping, and focusing on eating recovery foods. I’ll also be praying that I run a solid race in Chicago, running it just like I did my 16-miler. I’m praying hard for that. At the end of it all, I’m in for the experience of the race, but I can’t lie that I want that glorious feeling of running a strong marathon. And this is a big one.

I’m ready for this race to be here. I’m ready to see what I can do. I’m ready to stare down my exhaustion and “I don’t think I can” with a momentary “yes you can and you will” and see just what kind of power that can translate into. I want to see that for myself; I want that to be my story of this race.

Damn, this is hard. I think that I should hold on.

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