So, what happened during Sunday’s race? How do I explain the 13-minute difference between my goal time and the actual result? I think the answer may be far more complicated than just pointing at a particular aspect of my training or preparation that fell short. I’m wondering if the culprit was self-sabotage.
My training was by the books: I logged every workout, I was healthy throughout the entire cycle and I paid attention to all the ancillary work, such as nutrition and strength exercises. Philosophically you could argue whether I was following the right training plan to begin with, but the results seemed to be there and my improvement was steady throughout the cycle. I followed the guidelines for my taper and ate the recommended carb-heavy foods leading up to race day. The weather on Sunday was just about as good as any marathoner could hope for – 54 degrees and overcast at the start.
In other words – it was all there. All of the pieces fell into place. And I’m left to wonder if the huge pressure I put on myself to hit 3:10 ended up ruining my race in the end. The pre-race pressure only grew when I realized that, with every other factor lined up in my favor, the only reason I would fall short was because of some innate weakness on my part. Just that I, for whatever reason, am not Boston Marathon material. Despite my solid training, I lacked confidence on a deeper level.
I don’t know if that’s a logical argument or not, but I think it’s clear that the growing stress is what ended up holding me back. My stomach issues during the race were not digestion-related. I sincerely believe it was a result of the accumulated stress that had essentially worn me down in the days leading up to the race. It became a self-made yoke around me that only grew heavier as I ran.
But how is it possible to avoid this? How do you force yourself to be confident in the face of tall odds? It’s a hard question, and may come down to experience. Or it may be that there’s some other intangible quality that makes a Boston Qualifier. Something beyond the ability to run a certain pace over 26.2 miles. It’s the mental fortitude to have confidence in your ability and to be able to hold things together when it matters most – during the tough miles of the marathon. After this race I have an entirely new respect for people who qualify for Boston.
Aside from the introspection and self-analysis, there are some concrete things I learned from this race, and changes I would make to future training plans:
The marathon is hard. Yes, you heard it here first. I’ve run two marathons before – and I collapsed near the end of the first one – so you’d figure I was already aware of the difficulty at hand. But time passes – it’s been more than four years since I last completed the distance – and the memories of the struggle fade away. The truth is the marathon is so much more than a 26-mile run. Being thrust into a race environment multiplies the stress factor exponentially. Particularly when, like me, you’ve trained alone. On marathon day you’re not just out on another long run – it’s a race. With bibs, spectators, a clock that doesn’t stop and people who are running faster than you. There’s innate pressure to do well. It’s mentally challenging to superimpose the competitive atmosphere of race day onto a run that takes so much more strategy and discipline than a 5k, 10k, or even a half-marathon.
How did I run 20 miles – comfortably – at a 7:14 pace just three weeks before a race where it was an epic struggle to cross the line with a 7:46 average? Because the training run was utterly free from pressure – it was just me and the road. The marathon is the opposite – it’s all mental. Your physical ability becomes background noise. The struggle is won or lost in your mind.
Racing: Along those lines, I now realize that a critical factor that was missing from my training was race experience. I’m no stranger to road races, and because of my familiarity with racing I didn’t think I needed to include any in my training. I was also worried about how racing hard over a shorter distance would affect my marathon training – I’d have to take precious time away from training to recover from the race. But there was the fallacy – I wouldn’t have had to race hard. The benefit I would have gained from racing during marathon training would have been learning how to handle the nerves while maintaining a slower pace in a race environment. I certainly wouldn’t have been out to set any PRs. I already know how to go out fast and run hard. Races built into a marathon schedule should probably have a completely different focus, serving as dress rehearsals for the big day.
Tapering: Another learning experience from this training cycle involved the taper: I believe the three-week taper was too long for me. I was tired but sharp at the end of peak training, and at the end of the taper I just felt sluggish. I should probably have at least kept up my long-run mileage for another week, going 18 or even 20 on the weekend two weeks before race day. Training for any race is all about finding what works for you, and not signing on wholesale to a cookie-cutter training approach. I modified the bulk of my plan to fit my needs and my abilities, and it seemed to work well. Now I have a better idea of what kind of taper I need, too.
Up next: Getting back on the road. In my next post I’ll talk about my running goals for the next few months, and my strategy for transitioning from marathon recovery to race fitness.