Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Eugene Marathon: A Recap

I came to Eugene to race a marathon. The trip was born from conversations with Melissa, who first experienced the natural grandeur of the Pacific Northwest last summer while racing the Hood to Coast Relay. I had never been to Oregon, but I believed that I knew the place, that I would be at home there, beneath its evergreens on dark trails coated with pine needles, at the cultural epicenter of our sport. Choosing to race was an easy decision, though not without apprehension: training for a summer marathon in the Chesapeake Furnace would pose challenges.

Foremost among my goals was to test myself over 26.2 miles and experience the distance. While I've raced competitively for 20 years, Eugene is only the fourth marathon that I've trained for, the third that I've started, and the second that I've finished. I sought to accustom myself to the physical and mental suffering inherent in racing for two-and-a-half hours so that someday I might only have to race for two hours and twenty-five minutes. A marathon with a small field and a relatively flat course after a short build up were the perfect circumstances to gain this experience. 

The race begins in the heart of the University of Oregon and leads away from town, climbing gradually along a green stretch of road lined with cottage-style houses mingled within towering pines. In these early miles, it seemed that my taper had failed; my legs didn't feel fresh, and sore spots in muscles and bones niggled me with each step. Over two hours of running ahead, I settled into a pace that was perfectly slow and calmly covered several miles, passing droves of immoderate runners who were in for a long day of suffering. 

I ran miles 8 through 12 blindly, relying on feel, because there were no mile markers along this stretch - the event's principal shortcoming. Climbing the course's only true hill at mile 8 bolstered my confidence. It didn't matter that my legs weren't snappy because they were strong and doing what I had trained them to do. Inadvertently, my pace quickened through these quiet, solitary miles. When I emerged from a park into a neighborhood near mile 12, I found that I was within striking distance of the next runner. Still, I remained tentative, tempered by memories of the disastrous final miles of my last marathon. 

At mile 14, I caught the first of several runners who faltered from their self-inflicted wounds from a fast start. Upon seeing my Falls Road singlet, the runner asked if I knew Nate Brigham. I love the interconnectedness our community - a web that stretches from one coast to the other. We casually chatted despite running a pace near 5:30 per mile before I continued on to overtake the next runner. The sun was bright and hot along the roads, but I soon found that I preferred the exposure to the last section of the course that brought me back onto a concrete path for several miles. Initially, its many turns were nuisances. However, as I began to increase my exertion in the last third of the race, the snaking, undulating path extracted a mental and physical toll. The sharp and abrupt turns caused my muscles to spasm and disrupted my rhythm at a time when I need to remain composed, fluid. Worse yet, over the last 10K the path gave the impression of a continuous climb - an optical illusion that brought real anguish. 

After sloppy calculations, I estimated that I could run under 2:30 and perhaps in the 2:28s if I maintained a sub-6:00 pace for the last few miles. Initially, I believed it was attainable as long as I didn't cramp; my legs felt strong. But then my split for mile 24 was 6:11. The pavement had inflicted damage despite my conservative tactics, and I had slowed dramatically. Negative thoughts were encroaching, as I feared every step would be the last before a cramp halted my fading momentum. But the crowds grew. Then I heard music from the finish line, and multiple spectators told me that a runner, not yet in view, could be caught. So I pushed onward, fighting to maintain the integrity of my form and regain lost seconds. 

At mile 26, I passed the runner in fifth place. Though he was unable to respond, I ran scared, remembering my frustration of being nipped at the line and denied a top-ten finish at the Columbus Half Marathon. When I entered Hayward Field for the final stretch, I was, in that moment, oblivious to the track's significance and its history that had made the event so alluring. The race had drained me of emotion except the lingering fear of being passed and the increasing desire to stop. I crossed the line with an open stride, delighted to see that the clock had not ticked to 2:31 (2:30:32). Finally, I am a 2:30 marathoner. 

As a retrospective, a marathon neatly fits the narrative arc: exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action. But we are not credible first-person narrators because the haze of fatigue and delirium distorts our memories, dulls our senses. Products of Western literary traditions, we nonetheless piece together our experience into a storyline and cast ourselves as compelling protagonists - the everyman whose internal struggles are made manifest in the external struggle of the race. 

The arc of my narrative for Eugene is not steep in ascent or descent. I purposefully avoided the drama inherent in high mileage, a heavy racing schedule, and a large-scale marathon. I trained moderately and raced modestly, perhaps sacrificing an opportunity to dip under 2:30 but positioning myself for a positive outcome. The crisis is resolved and the action is falling: with a new PR in hand, I'm confident in my abilities as a marathoner and eager to begin drafting the sequel.  For now, it's time to relax and recuperate, celebrate and contemplate.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The NCR: A Simple Trail

Over the past two years, I've run hundreds of miles along a simple, crushed limestone trail that bisects Baltimore County on its north-south course between Baltimore's suburbs and York, Pennsylvania.  The NCR Trail, as it is colloquially known, is part of Maryland's Gunpowder Falls State Park.  For over a century, the Northern Central Railway carried freight between Baltimore and York, before the region's industrial decline. In the 1980s, after contentious debate between landowners and environmentalists, the State of Maryland acquired the trackbed and the land bordering it, transforming into a public land for the enjoyment and recreation of all.

Season after season, I return to the NCR most weeks to complete many of my longest runs and most challenging workouts. Despite traversing the same out-and-back course, I never get bored nor find it monotonous. Rather, its familiarity has become an asset, reducing the psychological stress of workouts that typically entail two hours of running. It is a variable in my training that is constant, stable, reliable. 

As an environmentalist and historian, I enjoy observing the seasonal changes along the route. At points, the trail cuts through bedrock, exposing rock walls dressed with verdant ferns and mosses. The trail also samples the county's patchwork landscapes of deciduous forest, wetland, farmland, town center, and homestead. Like an archaeological dig, as you progress north from the late twentieth-century housing development that surrounds mile marker 0 you encounter architectural bygones - buildings that were once banks, depots, stations, and stores that bustled along the railroad. And as fall thins the foliage, the young forest reveals much older fieldstone ruins and the shadows of lives long past. These artifacts prompt my mind to wander, as I imagine what life was like for those who lived here - Susquehannock hunters, slaves, wheat farmers, artisans and, later, immigrant laborers, clerks, grocers, and even woods babies*.  

But mostly, I return to the NCR because I've found no better place near Baltimore to prepare for long distance races.  Its crushed limestone surface is packed so firmly that it prepares my body for the pounding of a violent 13.1 miles and the duration of 26.2.  Yet, it is more forgiving than asphalt, thus reducing the risk of injury. From my considerable experience there, the mile markers are fairly accurate, making it the ideal location to include threshold intervals or tempo segments into a long run. The trail's minimal elevation change is also beneficial. While I believe that hilly long runs are an important component of any training plan, a relatively flat course is, in most cases, best for faster and longer workouts. Lastly, I cannot overstate the significance that its canopy played during my current cycle. The shade allowed me to complete longer and quicker runs than I would have been otherwise able to do during the Chesapeake summer. 

In the months ahead, I plan to eulogize many of the region's parks, for we Marylanders are fortunate for our state's commitment to creating and preserving public lands. I chose to begin with NCR because it has been kind to me. I've enjoyed significantly increased fitness and collected many personal records from training on this simple trail.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Run On For A Long Time

I reached the seventeenth mile and, with a deep gasp, released myself from the exertion and locomotive form that carried me through in 5:20, my third consecutive mile at that pace. I was then a mere mile-and-a-half from completing my last true long run of the marathon cycle. This long run, which I completed yesterday, was a variation of a Jack Daniels' workout that incorporated segments of threshold effort near the beginning and end of the run, bookending an 8-mile steady effort.  

Throughout my build up to the Eugene Marathon, I've emphasized weekly long runs, assigning each a purpose in my physical and psychological preparation for race day. And I hope that I've attained the fitness and resilience needed to not merely complete 26.2 miles or compete for 20 miles and stagger the last 6.2, but to race evenly, composedly, and confidently for its entirety.  

I've neglected my blog for the past several weeks, due in part to the fatigue of the most arduous weeks of my training cycle. With race day looming on July 27, I devote this entry to the weekly long run and its place in my training.  Experience coupled with research led me to choose the following variations of long runs, each with a purpose and place in the chronology of this cycle. 

The Steady State Long Run: For the first half of my marathon cycle, I completed a series of increasingly long weekly runs at a steady effort slightly quicker than maintenance run pace. On May 1, I ran 11 miles and over the next five weeks increased my long run to 22, adding a few miles weekly.  I'd ran these workouts progressively, running the first several miles at a comfortable pace and the second half between 30 and 40 seconds per mile slower than goal marathon pace - an approach that coach Pete Pfitzinger advises. Occasionally, I included hills as an additional stimulus. Once I began my long runs with quality, or quicker, segments, I alternated weekly between effort-based and steady-state long runs.

The Fast Finish: Coach and physiologist Greg McMillan is an advocate of the fast finish long run, encouraging marathoners to complete multiple such workouts over the last several weeks of a marathon cycle. After my phase of steady state runs, I ran a fast finish long run of 22 miles.  The first 11 miles were at a solid clip. On my return trip along the trail, I ran progressively for ten miles, leaving the last mile to cool down. Beginning with a 5:54 twelfth mile, I smoothly progressed into the 5:20s, ultimately averaging low 5:30s per mile, near goal marathon pace, for the 10-mile segment. The purpose of this run, perhaps the most difficult of the cycle, was to train my body to run fast and push hard while fatigued, after having endured many miles of pounding. 

The Marathon Pace (MP) Long Run: Two weeks after my fast finish long run, I ran 20.5 miles with an 11-mile tempo portion near goal marathon pace. Like the fast finish long run, the purpose of this run is to prepare you for the demands of racing 26.2 miles by running fast for long periods of time on increasingly tired legs. However, MP runs have the additional benefit of race pace specificity. The goal is not to run the tempo portion all-out but to feel and, ideally, maintain goal marathon pace, mile after mile. I run marathon pace regularly in midweek tempo runs of 5 to 8 miles, but longer variants should be used sparingly given the demands of such runs. MP long runs are as close to a marathon dress rehearsal as you could get. I initially considered running 14 to 15 miles at goal pace, but, after much deliberation, I opted for 11 - slightly over an hour of running at pace - to avoid over training. Given my circumstances of running alone on a summer day, 11 miles was sufficient.

Time on Your Feet: Nate Brigham, my training partner, christened this variant Megarun.  At 24+ miles, this was the longest run of my cycle. It is essentially a steady-state long run, the only difference being that it exceeds the amount of time on your feet you'll have on race day by several minutes. Thus, while it may be shorter than race distance, you run for a longer time than it will take you to race 26. 2 miles.  Some athletes choose to exceed marathon distance. Kenny Moore, a two-time Olympic marathoner, ran over 30 miles multiple times during a cycle, believing that he lacked the natural attributes to be an international-class athlete without such efforts. Meb Keflezighi recently built to a 28-mile long run in preparation for Boston. These runs adapt your legs to hours of constant pounding while depleting your body's glycogen stores and training it to draw upon fat reserves - a necessary physiological process to excel in the marathon. My Megarun was three weeks before Eugene, and my legs were very weary throughout from the cumulative effects of the cycle. 

The Long Run with Threshold Intervals: In my last post, I discussed the influence of the venerable Jack Daniels.  His marathon program is structured with near weekly long runs that incorporate some form of threshold running. For me, threshold entails running between 10-mile and half marathon race pace. Including threshold intervals in a long run is especially demanding because you must run several miles significantly quicker than marathon pace when you are already fatigued. My introduction to this post described the sole long run of this kind that I completed during the cycle. You can place the threshold segments at any part of long run to derive benefits. I, however, opted to structure the run thusly: 3-mile warm up, 3 miles at threshold effort (16:06), 8 miles at a steady pace, 3 miles at threshold effort (16:00), 1.5-mile cool down. At the conclusion of my first threshold segment, I had over 12 miles to run on tired legs, including 3 miles at threshold pace in the late stage of the workout. Accordingly, I had to muster the physical and psychological strength to run 5:20 pace after 14 miles of pounding on a hot and humid morning.  If there is a better simulation of the last miles of a marathon, I've yet to encounter it. 

Each of these long runs have contributed greatly to my fitness, as I affirmed during my workout yesterday in difficult conditions. My season is abbreviated, lasting only 12 weeks. If I had the benefit of a 15-week build up, I may have included a second fast finish long run and perhaps another long run with threshold intervals, or, better yet, replaced one workout with a longer race. Training is both physical and intellectual endeavor, and, since I am still a marathon dilettante, I've yet to determine both my training needs and optimal periodization. I suspect I'll find answers to some questions in two weeks as I approach the 20-mile threshold in Eugene.