Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the better marathon

Not the “perfect” marathon, I am hoping to run a better marathon. I am running the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday. It will be my fifth marathon, or my fourth (depending on how you count, since I didn’t finish my second marathon).

I have never finished strong. I think it comes down to a simple problem: I start too fast. I have indeed finished three of the four marathons I have run. But, in two of those, I was reduced to frequent walking breaks for the last 6-8 miles.

In the past, I have been concerned about speed, though my time goals have been realistic while also being challenging. I can finish a 10K in 48 minutes, a half marathon in 1:45. That should mean I can finish a marathon in 3:45 or even less. I did that, once, for my first marathon, my best marathon. New York City. I was 28 years old. I had been running for a mere 1 ½ years. (I am no high school track or cross and field runner. In high school I was smoking and taking soccer juggling to fulfill my physical education requirement. My dad ran, but I had no interest.)

During that first marathon, I did slow down a bit for the last four miles, but I didn’t have to walk (I tried, but when I walked, I felt I would never start running again – so I kept plodding and finished in 3:43).

For my second marathon, I had a time goal – to qualify for Boston. Don’t know why. I don’t really care about running Boston – but it was a goal. Problem was I did not do any speedwork. So, while I covered the proper distances, I started too fast and my legs literally seized up around mile 19. A terrible disappointment. Maybe I could have walked it out, but the time goal loomed so large in my mind, and I knew I would never make it.

After that, I didn’t care about Boston. But I still cared about speed. I trained with a group for the 2002 National Marathon in Washington DC. (The one that went bankrupt the next year, cancelling the 2nd annual race. It has been revived under new management with a new course.) I was convinced by my training and the coaches that I was capable of a 3:50 finish. So that’s the pace group I ran with. But the pacer had us going too fast, running 8:20s for the first five miles. I can do that, easy, for five miles, but that is not my marathon pace. I knew I was in trouble by mile 16. I had dropped off the pace group with two friends who were also suffering a little – but less than I was. I took walk breaks and wanted to stop by mile 19 (again – I know, the wall). But my training friend pushed me, talked me into continuing. Eventually, she ran ahead. I finished in 4:15.

I ran no marathons for six years, during which I had two kids and kept running and racing 10Ks, 10 milers and half marathons. In 2008, with my two kids aged 4 and 1, I looked to the Philadelphia Marathon. I was talking running with a new friend in my town, a friend I made because I saw her running in the early AM as I do and we both had 4-year-old sons who became good friends in school. I mentioned Philly, and she said, “Sign up; I’ll do it, too.” That little push did it.

Again, I thought 3:50. I am now dedicated to doing speedwork on a regular basis. My race times for other distances hold steady and strong. But, once again, I started too fast (trying to catch up to the 3:50 pace group, with their bouncing balloons). I knew I was in trouble by mile 10. That’s bad. I walked at each water station, then every mile. At mile 23, the 4-hour pace group balloons bobbed past, and I pulled myself together and suffered for the last 3.2. I finished in 3:59.

So, how to fix the blow outs? I think I just need to have some self-control and trust in the beginning – and avoid pace groups. My time goal is now 4:00. That I can probably do “comfortably.” And maybe I’ll even surprise myself and finish strong.

I want to run a better marathon. Five days to go.

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