Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts. We have officially passed the double-digit mark in the Marathon Countdown. Yes, there are fewer than 100 days—a mere 98 to be precise—to go.
This milestone is hitting me big-time. When I got accepted for the Children’s Hospital charity team on October 18th, April 18th seemed so far off, and now, not so much…which makes me sit back and take inventory, contemplate exactly how prepared I am to run a marathon in general and Boston in particular.
Way back in October when the race seemed like a nebulous concept, I concocted and announced my sub-four-hour marathon goal to the world (OK, maybe not to the world, but to my blog followers, my family, my Facebook friends and just about anyone else who would listen or at least pretend to listen). While most first-timers (and especially charity team first-timers) would have “JUST FINISH” as their goal, I would strive to earn my BQ (that’s Boston Qualifier, for those not up on the lingo) as a charity runner—which meant I’d have to not only finish but do so in less than three hours and 50 minutes. My coach (clarification: my tri coach, not the Children’s Hospital team coach, who discouraged this goal…so guess who I’m listening to…) said this was doable, and, among other things, he assigned me a 20-week diet of progressively longer long runs, speed work and tempo runs to get me there.
Now, I’m sure everyone can understand “long run” and “speed work” but “tempo runs” will require definition for my non-running friends. I won’t get too technical, since a). I’m no expert and b). I’ve read enough to know brawls can break out amongst “real” runners when the definition of “tempo” is the topic. With all that in mind, here goes: a tempo run is a long-ish run in which most miles are performed at an easy-ish pace but then there’s a burst of 20 or so minutes of steady, markedly faster running at “threshold pace”. Again without getting too technical, threshold pace is the effort level just below which the body’s ability to clear that yucky burning stuff—lactate—can no longer keep up with your body’s lactate production and you start to feel like crap.
Still with me? Kind-of-sort-of? An even easier definition is a fairly fun run with some dig-down-deep-super-serious stuff thrown in to keep you on your toes. (Well, wait. You really shouldn’t be running on your toes—you should hit the ground lightly and land between your heel and midfoot then quickly roll forward onto your toes and push off in a kind of springy-like way. But this blog isn’t about proper running form so we’ll stop there.) This isn’t the type of run you’d see your bog-standard Joe the Jolly Jogger doing on his sunny Saturday saunter; the purpose of it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to build the runner’s ability to focus and deal with discomfort courtesy of our fine friend Mr. Lactate, to sustain a specific and consistent speed sometimes called “comfortably hard”. These are all things you need to learn to do if, let’s say, you want to run a sub-four-hour marathon and have never run anything approaching marathon length before. (Here I will take the opportunity to once again define “marathon length” for my non-running friends: it is 26.2 miles. Always. Those little oval “26.2” bumper stickers you see from time to time—those are to show the owner of the vehicle finished some marathon, somewhere, at some point in time. The distance doesn’t vary from marathon to marathon or day to day, so stop asking me “how long is the Boston Marathon?” or, my personal favorite—and you know who you are—“Couldn’t you have picked a shorter marathon for your first?” Say it with me: a marathon is always, always, ALWAYS 26.2 miles. There you go—nicely done. I am so proud of you.)
OK, with definitions in place, let’s move on to the inventory-taking. On the long slow distance runs (aptly nicknamed LSD—they ARE addictive), those are going great. I do them on the weekends and since making the team on October 18th I’ve done six ten-milers, one 11-miler, two 12-milers, and one each at 13 and 14-mile lengths. By the end of this month, I’ll have added a 15-miler to that list (you don’t bump up the mileage every week—it’s a slow process to let your body adapt to the added demands; you back off a bit some weeks—hence the six ten-milers to date—then bump up a bit others, but never increasing more than ten percent in any one week). I would never call LSD easy, and I’ve had a few issues with my problematic-since-I-was-on-cross-country-in-high-school left knee (on three occasions or is it four I’ve experienced a sharp, searing out-of-the-blue pain which caused me to yelp out loud, and yelp is the right word there), but nothing major. (Unless you consider those yelps major. Let’s not, OK?) People ask how I combat boredom on these long runs, the longest of which took two hours and 28 minutes (that’s the average length of a Harry Potter movie, fyi). I’ve never been bored for a minute, not on any of them. (I have, however, been bored during Harry Potter movies. I know what you’re thinking: freak.) People ask what I think about. I think about running. They ask what I listen to. I am an ipod-free runner. I listen not to music but to my breathing, to my feet striking the ground. I confidently and eagerly await my weekly dose of LSD. I take it in, let it wash over me, chase it with a 15-minute ice bath to promote faster recovery.
Then there’s the speed work. It is a bitter pill I take with trepidation, entirely for fear of failing. My self-doubt in this arena is of the long-standing variety; in high school I used to joke I was on the cross-country team “because someone has to come in last”. I hid behind the humor—if I didn’t appear to want to be faster, I couldn’t be held accountable for slowness. As of October, I decided to not hide from it anymore.
So when I hit the treadmill for my speed work, I’m training my brain just as much as my body to reach for something greater. It is scary stuff of the good variety. Last month Coach had me do a peak power output (PPO) test to find out what I had speed-wise, so I can train right on that edge, play in the uncomfortable zone so my body says, “Hey! That was freaking hard! This chick is nuts! Let’s build this body of ours stronger so next time she inflicts that crap on us it won’t hurt quite so much!” As the saying goes, to run fast you need to (duh) run fast.
I’ve done ten speed workouts since signing on for Boston, and while they have all been a little different probably the best speed work I’ve done to date is six 50-second intervals at a 5:41 pace—a speed that thrilled me to achieve until I realized that those who will win the Boston Marathon will sustain something around that pace for the entire freaking 26.2 miles. I remind myself that front-of-the-packers aren’t 40-year-old single mothers with demanding careers (and demanding children, my 14-year-old tells me to insert as she proofs this blog post). After one speed session, my new favorite fitness trainer at the gym approached me and told me I looked “awesome” during my run, that she was uber-impressed with my speed and form. After asking if I could kiss her (she declined the smooch) I told her I want to record her saying that so I can play it over and over again when those super-fast Kenyans start sprinting across my mind, making me feel more like the three-toed sloth than the cheetah.
Now on to the tough-to-define tempo; how are those runs going? Remember the tempo run is where you work on “building your FAST”. What you do on the treadmill in 50 seconds is fine and dandy, but can you bring that to bear on longer distances? One runner wrote about the tempo run, “this workout is where you really earn the right to run longer at a quality pace; you need to be ready to do work”.
Well, I’ve definitely been doing the work, as my heart rate monitor readouts show—I am pushing the envelope there and getting my HR to the high 160s/low 170s which for me indicates the serious stuff is underway. But is that translating to earning the right to generally-speaking run longer at a quality pace and more specifically at the 8:46 pace I’ll need to achieve in order to meet my three-hour-and-50-minute goal on Marathon Monday?
The jury is still out on that.
When Coach first had me do run tests to determine my overall target paces, he indicated I should be able to achieve a 7:35 pace during the tempo portions of my runs. When I read that assignment, it seemed fantastically, insanely fast. Now, Coach is a big-time real-deal coach, so I wondered if he had mistaken me for one of his Olympic hopefuls. But still, I tried. And 7:35 proved to be as elusive as it sounded. Fabulously elusive. In fact, in my first tempo try, I aimed for two 2-milers at 7:35 pace and wound up with 8:32s and 8:25s. Even non-runners will know there’s a really big chasm between that “planned” and “actual”.
When I reported this failure (N.B.: my 14-year-old would call it an “epic fail”) back to Coach, he said: “That’s OK. Stay in the 8:20-8:30 range for now. It shows you currently have one speed. We can gradually work it down over time.”
Ouch! Single Speed CJ, that was me. I was not a happy camper. But not in a deflated sort of way. In a prove-him-wrong sort of way. Well, not a prove-him-wrong sort of way, as he was clearly right. But in a let’s-leave-single-speed-CJ-in-the-dust sort of way.
So for eight weeks I’ve been staying in the 8:20-8:30 range, putting in my miles, doing my speedwork. I’ll throw caution to the wind here and admit that after each session I visualize that I’ve folded that workout up and put it in my back pocket so I can take it to the start line with me then all the way to Boston. (For those of you looking for further proof of my obsession or insanity, there you go. I don’t know why I make it so easy for you.) I feel like I’ve filled that back pocket up quite a bit. So when yesterday’s run called for three miles at tempo at the end of a ten-miler, I made a unilateral decision (naughty girl, I know) to strive for the original 7:35 target. Maybe all that speedwork has served as my magic elixir, given me that boost I need to close the gap.
I could blame the 8:15 and 8:38 on really colossally big hills, the 8:54 on the latest and greatest yelp-inducing knee twinge. But really, it doesn’t matter—none of them were anywhere near 7:35. The really big chasm is still the really big chasm. Where does this leave me? I don’t know. Am I destined to be single-speed CJ forever? I don’t think so. Am I a pompous, arrogant lunatic for thinking I could possibly take on not just my first-ever marathon but the granddaddy of all marathons—BOSTON—and BQ at it? That’s still to be seen. In a mere 98 days. Bigdeepbreaths.
Of course, as a charity runner I have a concurrent fundraising goal, but this goal will be achieved one way or the other; between now and Marathon Monday I’ll either finish fundraising my full $5,000 for Children’s Hospital or the good folks at Children’s will simply charge the remainder to my credit card (the information for which I had to fork over when I was accepted). So far I’ve raised just shy of $2K—not too shabby, but not quite halfway there. I am going to pick up that effort’s tempo later today, finally finish writing and then print the flyers I’ve been meaning to put up around town. Since I am the only Marlborough runner on the Children’s team and Grace and I are very likely the only Marlborough patient partner/runner team in the entire marathon, I have confidence that my fundraising pace will quicken without pushing my heart rate into sky-high territory once I get off my arse. Yes, folks, we’ve finally reached the part of the blog where the fun reading about your crazy friend’s marathon quest is over and she asks you to open your wallet, find your credit card, hit her web page to make an online donation and join the ranks of the others who have done so before you. While you’re there, please leave me a message—I LOVE reading these!
My sponsor messages urge me to both “run like the wind” and “break a leg”. There’s even a remarkably inspiring TS Eliot quote from my mother, who has in the past been prone to cut me down not build me up. I submit as proof: over Christmas when I showed her my favorite finish line photo from my 2010 tri season, she commented not on how strong or happy her daughter looked but instead how goofy she looked. Kid you not. Her lone comment as she looked at the picture of her daughter triumphantly crossing her first Oly finish line? “That’s awful! Your hair is so poofy it makes you look like Bozo the Clown”. Yes, folks, I couldn’t make that up if I tried–I’m just not that creative. That’s my mum.
So, thanks again for stopping by. May your runs be yelp-free, and, most importantly, may you have truly excellent hair days while you accomplish those runs.