Taper time is here, and I can’t be the only Chicago Marathon participant who is praising God for it. The running community agrees that taper mode is more of a mental exercise than training– you’re slowing down after weeks of heavy training so, even though you know this method is proven to be a marathon best practice, there’s a lot of room to psych yourself out. Am I resting too much? Too little? Am I negating all of my training? For me, I don’t really “get” a taper time. Having missed so much training, I’m still in the balancing mode of overdoing it and doing something at all. Consider that the psychology of taper time has been my state of mind since July 28th– the day I ran 14 miles and all of this hip/calf injury crap began. So, I’ve been tapering for nearly two months and so yeah, I’m over it already and I want this race to be in bed and I want to hear the medal clanging softly against my other medals hanging on my wall as I walk by. I sort of wish there was a way to Hans Solo yourself in carbonite until race day, but there’s not: you have to go through the taper time.
Following Sunday’s 18-miler, I took the following Monday off from doing anything. I wanted to get on the elliptical for a little while, but I felt like my quads were still sore and that’s the muscle that burns the most when I’m elliptical training. Rest days are training days, too, you know. And I sort of amped right up to 18 miles, so I figured a day of rest might be the best way to balance recovery and training.
Tuesday, I decided to go for a run between 4 and 8 miles, depending on how I felt. It was the first day of fall and the season wasted no time in introducing itself. Even though the evening was a cool 68 degrees that would feel like 78 at the peak of my run, I put on some arm warmers because I knew I’d probably be out there for a little while and fall evenings cool down pretty quickly.
If I may sidebar briefly, I absolutely ADORE arm warmers because I feel like a total badass wearing them but I also feel feminine, too. I once took a ballet class where I understood for the first time why leg warmers are a critical part of ballet dancing– they keep dancers’ leg muscles from getting cold and stiff in between leaps and pirouettes and barre exercises. Arm warmers serve that purpose for runners: if your limbs are cold, your body has a biological obligation to respond to that stimulant by rushing blood to your limbs to warm them up, but you need that blood pumping elsewhere to keep your running form strong. But you also need to keep your core from overheating, too. Long sleeves cover up the areas that release heat. Also, unlike a long sleeve, arm warmers provide the added bonus of removal if you feel like you layered up too much. I have even worn arm warmers to a race on an 80-degree day: the Goofy Challenge. Race morning in mid-January Florida at 2AM was in the low- to mid-sixties at start time, so arm warmers were a must. But as the race wore on, I rolled up my arm warmers to uncover my wrists (a pulse point and heat release point) and rolled them down just under my elbow and soaked them in ice water. They kept the sun off my skin and the water kept my arms cool which mentally helped me register that the day was not as hot as the thermometer read. Arm warmers are our fwiends.
Tuesday’s run felt a little on the challenging side. Starting out, my legs were feeling a little heavy and stiff– the same heavy and stiff feeling that plagued me during Minneapolis Marathon training season and the start of Chicago Marathon training season. I wondered if I just hadn’t given myself enough recovery time from the 18-miler. I get so angry when my legs feel this way. Why can’t I just RUN!?! Why do my legs have to feel stiff and heavy? Why does nothing I do outside of running matter to keeping that dead lead feeling out of my form? Why has it been a constant problem for so long now? I pushed forward anyway, trying to practice “race pace” but yearning for that fast and free feeling. My paces were dipping slightly under 10:00, which was encouraging. My cardio and muscle abilities feel like they’re on two levels and this was so apparent during this run. On a cardiovascular level, this felt sinfully easy. On a muscular level, I felt like I was running through drying cement. I don’t understand this phenomenon and it is far more infuriating than an injury.
Just before mile two ended, during which I was about to clock a 9:42 split, I felt a dull yet stabbing ache deep in my left glute muscle. During the entire run, I was fighting Charlie Horse-like cramps that nearly made my knees buckle as they periodically rippled up from my ankle and into my knees. I had to fight to keep my ankles steady enough to hold my form together. I pulled back on my pace, tempted to stop, but I was two miles from the office with no way to get back without running or walking. I pushed forward, realizing this might not have been a smart idea, but saying, “Just get through one more mile.” The dull ache started feeling like a stab, like someone had jammed a screwdriver into my glute. I felt it in one specific area. Damn, this is not good… I thought to myself. Along with of course this would happen to me; what am I doing so wrong to make my body rebel like this? It’s just running for goodness sake. I got through to mile 4 and, out of my usual “err on the side of caution” policy, I stopped. It was unfortunate, really– the evening was splendid. It’s one of the best reasons to run, to get out and see the world, but here I was, cramped up and achy. I stopped my Garmin and walked for a little while. The ache seemed to subside a little bit, so I decided to run a slow, shuffle-like pace. I could see other runners, running and gliding like there was nothing to it, and I felt jealous and irritated that I constantly have these battles to deal with over and over. I couldn’t focus on improving my pace; instead, my battles were don’t get injured. UGH.
Realizing that the evening was getting cooler and my mandatory nightly crochet-and-TV time was dwindling as I trudged the 1.5 miles back to the office, I decided to run again. I didn’t turn my Garmin on. I just ran whatever pace I felt like running; whatever felt like the easiest stride to me. I felt grateful to find it. Whatever pace I was running, whatever speed I was going, it felt easy and free. I just ran, and I even considered going longer. I had to stop to let a stoplight run out before I could cross the street, but as I stood there waiting for the traffic light to turn, I actually wondered if running the Chicago Marathon without my Garmin should be part of my strategy. I decided that I would seriously consider this approach over the course of tapering. That Garmin-free mile I just ran, I felt no pressure to beat a pace and the pain in my glute almost didn’t appear to me. It couldn’t be a coincidence…
Given the absurdity that was Tuesday night’s run, Wednesday was an obvious rest day. Thank goodness, too– somehow no one in the DC area realized that there was a Nor’Easter heading up the coast and expected to dump rain all over us. I also decided that I would rather catch up with a friend over happy hour Pinot Noir. One of the best things about tapering is that you start seeing your life coming back. I’ll take that.
Thursday came and I realized that the frog in my throat was not just a weird sort of “maybe I talked too loudly at happy hour” frog. It was a cold. First one of the season. I went to work feeling that annoying “it’s just a little bug” feeling but, as the day wore on, the body aches started coming in and I knew that I had somehow managed to pick up something nasty. Ughhhh. I had to leave work early because the achiness was just too much and all I wanted was to lay down and stop holding myself up. A run was out of the question, but thank goodness the cold came before the marathon. Do your worst, bug.
Saturday came, and I realized that it had been about three days since I last ran. I guess this only made me nervous because I didn’t want my planned 10-12 mile run to be a sheer disaster. Even though I was still recovering from a cold (which was really three days of some serious achiness), I was getting nervous that even a few days without running would derail my fitness. Again, tapering does some crazy things to your mind. I decided to lace up for a 3-mile shakeout run at sunset sans music. I wanted to pay attention to what my body was doing and how it felt, but really I just felt like running. Overall, it was a great run but I was still feeling lethargic from my cold. Having so many aches sort of made my nerves overstimulated so I felt almost worse having run, but I still made it through with a satisfactory run.
Sunday morning arrived. Having only about 10-12 miles to run that day, I didn’t put too much stock into waking up super early to run. I knew the day was going to get warm, but I had my windows open all night and had to curl up under a blanket as I sat on my couch hydrating and eating cereal before leaving. I decided it was definitely an arm warmers morning, but thankfully I checked the weather before I left and saw that the morning had warmed up from 58 to 68 degrees. I filled my water bottle with half PowerAde and half water (my long run elixir of choice) and stopped for my usual Starbucks triple espresso. As I waited for my Garmin to pick up a signal, I did the hip drop exercises that my PT had prescribed for me to do. Whether that made a difference in my run, I don’t know, but I do believe that simple exercise is helping tremendously.
As with all of my runs, the first 3 miles were tough to find a rhythm. My goal for this run was at least 10 miles at a 10:46 pace, which I decided I will attempt in Chicago for a roughly 4:45 finish. It’s hard to keep in mind, when you see super slow first splits, that the first miles are always– and should always– be the slowest ones, but by mile 3, I was starting to feel that comfortable pace that makes long runs feel relaxing. I wasn’t breathing super hard, but yet I was working. I had chosen for this run a flat course based on some advice from a veteran Chicago Marathoner whose experience on its legendary flat and fast course meant that I had to train my muscles to sustain a pace over a flat course. The morning was beautiful– a clear sapphire September sky framed by delicately yellow-tinted leaves that signaled early fall. A lot of runners were out, and I wondered how many of them were training for Chicago, too. Mile four came and I was feeling happy. Confident and in total control. I couldn’t believe how quickly these miles were flying by. I stopped for some photos underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and continued on, promising myself that when I wasn’t in training mode, I would come back down to Jones Point and really take some time to explore it.
I reached the halfway point and realized I was really starting to fly, heart first. I tried to maintain my pace, remembering that I was practicing for race day on which I would run the first 10-13 miles at a slow-ish pace and then pick up the pace until mile 20 when I would run faster until mile 23 at which I would burn holes in the road with a pace I planned to work for. But the camaraderie on the trails on a beautiful September Sunday morning was intoxicating. Everyone was saying hi or smiling, other runners were out and the sense of community was tangible and the endorphins were kicking into high gear. My pace started dipping down under 11:00 and staying consistently in the 10:30-10:45 range. I tried to tell myself to take it easy, slow down, but I couldn’t help it. I also partially wondered if I really could push the pace and hold it. Was I holding myself back? Was I more capable than the pace goal I had set for myself? I admit that I wanted to see.
Mile eight and nine, the paces I was running (somewhere between 9:34 and 10:21) were really starting to feel tough. My breathing had picked up, my legs were feeling stiff, it was getting harder to sustain but it was almost harder to slow down, too. Slowing down reminded me of the release you get when you stop. I didn’t have much of a choice to hold my pace where it was and keep going. The day was pretty hot by this point— the sun was roasting the back of my neck, I was dying for some ice water to drink, my legs were feeling ready to give out. All of it was starting to make me panic a little, so I stopped for 30 seconds under a tree canopy to catch my breath or at least get it under control. I got back on the path and ran for about a quarter of a mile before checking to see if my quick stop had ruined my progress and realized with dismay that I had forgotten to start my watch again. Ugghhhh running another quarter mile on top of the two I had left felt like a punch in the gut. I was already feeling the pressure to finish my 12 miler without quitting at mile 11 and now I had to rerun the last quarter mile I had just put behind me!? I was bound and determined not to give up. I kept my pace as strong as I could, but the heat felt like it was closing in on me. I stopped one more time in the shade to regain my sense of mental control enough to power through another 6 or so minutes left in my last mile. By the time the watch hit 12 miles, I was beyond ready to stop. I had run hard, probably harder than I should have. I was ECSTATIC when I realized, however, that pushing that hard might have helped me seal a 12-miler two seconds faster in average pace than my goal. If there was ever a time I needed a last boost of confidence before the marathon, this was that run.
We are now less than two weeks away from the start line, and I’ve said it a hundred times before now: I can’t wait to put this race behind me. Not only because I want to test my own limits, but because I just need to know that I can do this. And I am looking forward to more balance in life again. Every marathon training season is full of hard work and anticipation, and I’m already hungry for the next marathon. But I’m looking ahead to working on the quality of my running and not having to rely on the marathon itself to prove that I walk the walk.