Week Fifteen: Chicago Marathon Training

July 2009: The last time I was in Chicago and not just passing through at ORD. I was with the family celebrating my dad's 50th birthday. I was also kind of large. Back then, I thought running marathons were only for professionals-- just something else I couldn't do. Five years later, I'd be back to run the Chicago Marathon!
July 2009: The last time I was in Chicago and not just passing through at ORD. I was with my brother, sister, and stepmom celebrating my dad’s 50th birthday. I was also kind of large. Back then, I thought running marathons were only for professionals– just something else I couldn’t do. Five years later, I’d be back to run the Chicago Marathon!

I can’t believe it’s Week Fifteen. One week until Chicago. Fifteen weeks ago, I was still in Nebraska having just left my job and was starting the preparations to move across the country to DC for a new job. Fifteen weeks ago, our family didn’t have our cat Tucker. Fifteen weeks ago, I wasn’t 8 weeks into my new job and new life back in DC in a studio apartment I love. A lot of life happens in fifteen weeks. I still remember getting the email that I had won a lottery entry into the race and then signing up for it thinking, “So, this is really going to happen? You’re going to let this happen.” And now it’s almost here!

After Sunday’s successful 12-miler, I took three days off from running. Honestly, I don’t know what I am doing here as far as tapering and I’m sick of the guessing game. I think my taking three days off from running was partially because I am SO READY for this race to be behind me already and to enjoy life a little more. Don’t get me wrong– I love marathons and I love the training lifestyle, and I am not going to quit them. But I can’t stop thinking about the days when running 8’s and 9’s were easy and fun and it has been a long time since I have run those paces. I keep seeing glimmers of them while I am running, especially now that I have gotten physical therapy for my hip issues and those are the times when running is the most joyful for me because I see my hard work paying off in my pace times. When I’m running slow with that lead feeling in my legs, that’s not fun to me. I don’t enjoy it because all I can think about is, “What is the point to this? Why do I even bother? Is this the best I can do?” So, I took three days off because I just didn’t feel like running those paces, even as I know that the time to run those is paces is now as I am tapering. But I didn’t want to run them if I wasn’t in the best shape that I can be in. Not if I wasn’t as strong in the areas where it counts the most. Not if I can’t be the runner I am in my head. At this point, it feels more like quantity than quality. I was almost on my way to getting my 4:00 marathon, and then it was like all my progress not only started over but sent me so far behind I was past where I started. How is that fun??

After Chicago, I may run a couple more races because I would love to finish 2014 having completed 10 half-marathons and 5 marathons– it just seems like a well-rounded set of figures. But I will be spending my time focusing on core work, strength, and efficiency. I can’t wait to take spin classes and Body Pump classes and barre classes. Running will absolutely still be a part of my exercise routine– I can’t ignore the call of the trail, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the emptiness I get after a big race has ended and I go back to my regularly scheduled life consumes me and I sign up for another big race. But I want to focus on becoming a quality runner in 2015 and (hopefully) meeting my 4:00 marathon time or even qualifying for Boston. I’m likely only going to run shorter distance races until I find out if I get into the 2015 New York City Marathon or I decide to train for the 2016 Dopey Challenge. Running will not go away for me– it’s only going to get better from here. But I need to work on my talent, too.

Egret by the Potomac River
Egret by the Potomac River

Thursday, after work, I headed out for what I was hoping would be a 4-6 miler. The evening was balmy for October. Having been out earlier in the day, which still felt cool, I donned a pair of arm warmers that I would later decide I probably didn’t need. I took my usual path– run to the National Mall, turn left around the World War II Memorial and down the path by the Lincoln Reflecting Pool. I turned left around the Lincoln– one mile– and headed toward West Potomac Park. I was starting to get faster and realized I was probably running too fast for what I intended to be “an easy run” but I decided to go with it. My pace was near 9:20 at the end of mile two. I stopped to catch my breath and a quick picture of a river bird in the sunset. Washington, DC has so many little gems, I can’t even…. I wound around the Jefferson Memorial and made almost a full circle around the Tidal Basin to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. My pace had slowed to a 9:28 but I was really starting to feel it. Man, I can’t believe this used to feel easy. I hope I’ll get back to that level of speed and ease. For my last mile, I looped the Lincoln Reflecting Pool. My legs felt shattered after that run. Running my old paces now feels great– I know I am capable of them.

Lots of runners out on the National Mall
Lots of runners out on the National Mall

Walking back to the office, however, my legs were seriously famished. I know I had taken 3 days off from running but usually that length of time means I feel rested and rejuvenated after a hard run, not like I just broke every bone in my body. I probably just ran it too fast, I thought. I averaged a 9:33 over 4 miles. That was faster than a lot of runs I’d had lately. However, once I took off my running shoes, I saw something that might have solved the mystery for me. The heel of my running shoes was so worn down that it had formed a soft spot. I took a good hard look at my running shoes and knew that I had been running with them on borrowed time. The tread was nearly cleanly worn off, my toes had almost worn completely through the fabric, and I thought I saw the actual shoe in one place was separating from the heel. This was not good. How I thought I was going to make it through the Chicago Marathon on them was suddenly beyond me.

Now usually, when people ask me for advice about getting into running, my first line is always, “Make sure you have proper shoes.” Running can be done in any attire, but you must have the right shoes to be able to go the distance, otherwise you’re looking at myriad of issues. I knew in the back of mind that I needed new running shoes; however, a cross-country move and getting back on my feet meant I had to make a lot of tough financial choices, and running shoes unfortunately took second place to apartment fees, furniture, and moving expenses. But I couldn’t prolong that purchase any more: I needed new running shoes, and I needed them NOW.

Usually, this close to a race, I know that the time to use new shoes has basically come and gone, but then again, there was still about 10 days until the race and plenty of time to break in a new pair on my 6-8 miler for Sunday. The problem was that the model of my current shoe, the Mizuno Wave Rider 16, was basically out of stock in my size everywhere. I did find a pair a half size up from my current pair, but didn’t feel good ordering them without trying them on first, so I instead bought the Mizuno Wave Rider 17 from Amazon and requested rush shipping.

Sunday morning, the day of my last “real” run before the marathon arrived. I wanted to wake up early and do a last-minute test to see what clothes would work best for the marathon, given that the race day weather forecast was similar to Sunday morning, but the truth was, something was plaguing me hardcore and I couldn’t shake it off.

Where do I start….

Here’s the truth: I struggle constantly with identifying as a runner because I haven’t been able to meet a lot of my goals through it. I’ve had to stop successful training seasons– meaning, my training was going so well that my goals were attainable– because of injury or because someone decided to get married on the day I planned an out-of-town race I was 8 weeks into training for, or because I had to move across the country for jobs twice in a year. And because of those things, I’ve had to pick up the pieces of my training and register for other races that, yes, I’ve been able to finish successfully but have not been able to meet any goals I started out with because when big things like that come along, your training tends to stop and you lose your progress and you have to “settle” for just finishing another race. I am ready to stop running marathons “just” to finish. All I’ve wanted is to become a faster, stronger, talented runner and I don’t feel like that at all. Maybe I just haven’t worked hard enough, but the inherent nature of progress is one step at a time, and I’ve taken probably millions of steps by now only to feel like I’m marching in place. Not being able to “get around” those things and “still” pull off a specific marathon goal makes me feel like I have no control over my own life and how I respond to things that happen.

That being said, I have to create a picture of myself as a runner in my head to help me focus on where I want to go and who I want to be as a runner. The runner I picture myself to be in my head is one of perfection. She’s focused, has on just the right clothes that don’t ride up, chafe, and function to perfection. She doesn’t fumble around with anything that keeps her from running her best, like a water bottle that leaks or music that makes her wonder “why would my iPod shuffle to this song??” She just runs. With her eyes focused straight in front of her. In perfect rhythm. She climbs the trail with one outstretched leg, not a bouncing shuffle. In a word, she’s a machine. I try to be this runner whenever I step foot out the door.

On Friday, a new tank top that I bought for the race arrived in the mail. Buying something new for race day is usually a big race tradition I have for myself. It’s the same reason why one would buy a new dress for a big event: it’s a confidence booster. So, I tried on the top and, much to my dismay, it didn’t fit. In fact, it was horribly unflattering. It was huge in the shoulders and tight around my waist and stomach where I have neglected to mind during training season. UGH. Okay fine, I thought, so this shirt might not be the right cut for me, so I’ll just go shopping. I went to Target, whose line of Champion sportswear is pretty legit and affordable, and selected a couple of tops to try on. My nightmare, however, wasn’t over. The first shirt I tried on was almost the same as the last one but worse because it was a size larger and, to my utter shock, it looked even more horrifying on me than the shirt I’d tried on at home. It looked so bad, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to look at myself yet I stood there soaking in the awfulness of my own reflection in disbelief and unable to look away. It was soul-crushing. To me, it was no secret that even as I run constantly, my physique was not as sleek as it used to be when I incorporated more workout types into my exercise regimen. In short, I knew I’d gained some weight, but I sort of ignored it because the number bothered me but it wasn’t so significant as to have a mental breakdown over it. My approach to it was I’m training for a marathon, so everything else is on hold until after the race. Yet here I was, standing in a fitting room wearing a size larger than I normally wear and it was still a little tight for me and the reflection in the mirror was worse than I’d probably ever beheld. I can’t believe this, I thought with increasing despair, I’m a marathoner about to run her fifth one at one of the seven World Marathon Majors races and I was being brought down by a $17 tank top from Target!? It was sobering.

And right before a week during which I have to eat a lot of carbohydrates to prepare for the race. To say that took the fun out of carb-loading would be an understatement.

Honestly. It’s JUST train gain. Runners need to eat a lot to replenish after hard runs and to fuel up for other runs. It’s no big deal. It’s possible that some people who read this would call me crazy, not at all fat, not the image I saw in the mirror (because people have called me out on saying “I feel fat” before). And they’d probably send me hate mail for whining over a small number that was only a vanity number. But that doesn’t matter– I don’t feel good about how I look. I certainly wasn’t the machine-like runner I held in my head. More than likely, the pictures from the race that I would be getting back would show me as a lurching cow rather than a sleek gazelle. If I didn’t have the race in a week, I’d have thought Time to suck it up, buttercup. Tomorrow morning, you are going to This Class or That Class and you’re going to stop doing this or that and I’d have drafted an entire strategy to drop 10 or 15 by a certain date. So basically, I feel stuck with my unhappiness in my own self-image until after the race.

The only way I could think to deal with all that crap was to get out and run. I’ve said a zillion times before that I’m not a morning runner, but having woken up early to run three times in September, I have to admit that I’m starting to understand the intangible benefits of getting it done early— chief among them being that I have full right to be as lazy as I want for the rest of the day on the couch with Netflix and  my latest crochet project without having to think, Ugh, I gotta get my run done…. or If I leave at 3PM, I’ll get my run done before the sun sets. And that was the feeling that I was getting while sitting there stewing in my own self-concocted mental drama. I wish I had woken up early to run instead of sitting there not being able to fully enjoy the Suits marathon I had going on.

Sunday was a splendid day with temps around 64 when I left home wearing compression socks, my new shoes, and arm warmers with shorts and a tech shirt similar to one I had bought for the race (that hid the massive muffin top where my shorts cut in at the waist). I decided to attempt a slower pace run to practice what I really need to keep an eye on during the marathon: reigning in my energy and not going too fast. I started out with a 10:53– the first split needed in a 4:45 marathon. I actually had to slow down because I was going too fast. The second split was a 10:35. It was starting to feel slightly difficult to maintain that pace– my third split was a 10:37. But around the fourth mile, I felt like I got my wings back and was starting to run in the high 9’s and lower 10’s. The turnaround at mile 5 was windy and it stayed windy for nearly a mile, but I still clocked a 9:45 split. Mile six, I was starting to feel like I was losing fuel in the tank, but I realized it was partly because I was starting to panic at the idea of holding on for another two miles at that speed. I slowed down enough to regain some energy and pushed forward for another mile and ended my 8th mile at a 9:56 split.

Here is what I fear the most about the marathon.

Marathons are hard and they hurt. A LOT. For the first part of a long run, things might be going great and you feel like you can push it up a little and go faster. But then it starts getting harder to maintain that pace and your endurance, and this is kind of where I start to panic a little. All I can think about is how much it hurts and how hard it is to keep pushing and I panic because I feel like it should be easy because it was easy just a few miles back, but now it’s hard and it hurts. And I panic that I’m going to burn off all my energy and I won’t be able to finish. It’s all about what happens in your mind: you have to think about anything else besides the pain and the difficulty, but it’s really easier to just zone out and not think at all. Listen to whatever song is in your ears, focus ahead on the trail, be present. Michael Jackson once said about dancing that thinking is the worst thing you can do: “Dance now, think later.” When it gets hard as hell in the moment, you have to just turn off everything about you that cares and just run. For as many marathons as I have trained for, this is still something that somehow tends to bring me to my knees.

Sunday’s run was a confidence booster and the official end to a brief month of super long runs. I started this program at the end of June and was able to accomplish a 12, 14, 13, 16, 18, and for my long runs in addition to a handful of mid-week 4-9 mile runs. I had an estimated mileage count of about 246.69 miles over 16 weeks. I battled through injury, big life changes, and mental drawbacks (especially when, after my injury showed up, some people suggested that I not run the race or that I need to find something else to do— seriously SHUT THE HELL UP). Overall, I believed in myself and I wanted it bad enough. Now it’s time to make it happen.

My strategy for this week is to rest…..I’m only going to run a SLOW 4-miler on Wednesday….sleep at least 8-9 hours per night (going to bed at 8PM, which is 7PM Chicago time so I can practice falling asleep that early)…..get in one more PT session to loosen up my muscles…..focus on eating the right carbohydrates as well as protein and calcium for recovery (beer included)…..and practicing the art of positive thinking.

I can do this. I will do this. I want to do this. I am going to make this happen for myself.

My flight leaves this Friday at 11AM.

Next stop….Grant Park!

2 thoughts on “Week Fifteen: Chicago Marathon Training

  1. I enjoyed reading your post because of so many things I’ve had to deal with my training this year also; including an injury, and the realization that as much as I’ve tried to be a better athlete I can only do so much within the 24 hours in a day.
    I almost quit halfway trough and was tempted to ask for a deferment; but just the thought of having gone over each obstacle for nothing gave me reason to keep at it.
    And so here I am, just a few days away from this goal. So close and yet 26.2 miles away from it. Energy is contagious and so I can’t wait to be in the thick of it to get those warm and fuzzy feelings of camaraderie and positive energy among strangers. Good luck to all of you!!!

    1. Thanks for your comment 🙂 It’s inspiring to know that not all of us have had as good of a training season as we wanted because there’s such power in not giving up! Good luck on your race in Chicago! Let’s do this!!

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