Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pacing, Not Racing

This post is two months in the making (errr, writing). It's not late, I was just pacing myself.

After the cancellation of Ironman Tahoe 70.3, I had no excuse not to jump right into marathon training for the California International Marathon. CIM is coined "The Fastest Course in the West" and is often used as a Boston Qualifying race since the course has negative elevation*. I had the fitness, but needed to make sure it would translate into running fitness, so I mostly put away my bike for a couple of months.

*(Note to future CIM runners: It's not a "flat" course, and there are a bunch of rolling hills in the first half. But technically, you run downhill more than you run uphill.)

I followed the "Run Less Run Faster" (RLRF) training plan for a 3:40 marathon time which is the Boston Qualifying time for my age group, but had to modify slightly since I only had 11 of 16 weeks to train. I wasn't too upset about skipping three 20-mile training runs, and only completing the last two. RLRF is great for triathletes: three days of running (track, tempo, long) and two days of easy cross training.

The run days are really intense though. I think I saw Jesus a few times. He says, "Hello."

My running buddy, Matt, likes to say things like, "Hey, Suzanne, why don't we run every 200 of this 1,600 at exactly the same pace?" This is Matt's very kind way of saying, "Why don't you back off so you don't die in the middle of the interval, you big idiot?" Matt has run enough track workouts with me to know that my tendency is to go out too fast, slow down, then hammer the last bit to make the interval time. Converse to my Chicago Marathon experiment where I decided to run the first half close to a half marathon pace (then almost died), Matt ran the New York City Marathon, and consistently clocked around 8:45 per mile. It was decided - this was the year I would learn to pace myself. Whether or not I hit a Boston Marathon qualifying time was less important.

Why is pacing so difficult?

Everyone knows the scenario when you realize your gas light is on in the car. So, what do you do? Do you fly down the street to the nearest gas station to get there faster (and probably burn more gas)? Or do you slow down and follow behind a large-moving vehicle and take your time (a la Driving Miss Daisy)? I tend to charge forward and hope that I have enough steam to get to the end. So far, I trust that the car has warned me far enough in advance and I live in a city where gas stations are everywhere.

Unfortunately our bodies don't have a very good gas light. In fact, by the time your inner gas light goes on - you are probably going to bonk, or shit yourself. The goal is to get your body to the finish line on one tank of gas. Knowing what pace you can handle is part of the battle. (The other HUGE part is eating/nutrition. To be continued.) Run Less Run Faster holds you to very specific paces for each workout. To do it "right" you have to chose a realistic goal time that you know you can achieve, and use the pacing given for each workout.  If you are pacing correctly, it often feels like you need to hold yourself back from running too fast. Matt called this, "Run slow to run fast."

It seems counter intuitive to slow down when you feel good and want to pick up the pace. But, as it is with life - sometimes the right thing to do is slow down, hold yourself accountable (to a pace), and manage your expectations.  Trust that the universe (or your good training) will get you past the finish line.

I did not enjoy training for previous marathons. I went out and completed the mileage, but I didn't know what pace I should run or what my time should be. In fact, my long training runs were well over 9-minute miles. When I saw a 20-mile run at an 8:30 pace on the RLRF training plan, I thought it was impossible. But, I trusted that I'd chosen a reasonable goal based on other race times. October was difficult; I almost threw up during an early track workout, and shin splints plagued my first significant long run. (This run was quickly followed by a trip to my physical therapist, and many weeks of butt-strengthening exercises.) By November, I was on fire; my paces were slightly faster, and my legs felt great!

The days prior to CIM, I didn't really know what pace I should run. A 8:23 pace would lead to a 3:40 marathon, but I wanted to be at least one minute under. I also took into account that runners usually end up going further than 26.2 miles, there are aid station stops, hills, and possibly other obstacles along the way (i.e. people, the need to use a port-o-pottie). So, at dinner the night before the race, I talked to my pacing buddy, and we decided to stick around 8:18 per mile for the first half, then see if we couldn't run the second half slightly faster. Easy pace, plenty of room for error.

On race day, our three-person pace group went out too fast for the first couple of miles, but were able to hang back for the rest of the first half. I felt like I could pick up the tempo, but knew it wouldn't pay off in the end. This was pacing, not racing. There was no way I'd let my Garmin tick below 8:15, and I wouldn't freak out if it ticked at 8:20. I was in the zone.

The second half came on, and our pace group was separated, so I was on my own. The second half, in theory, should be run slightly faster. I felt good with 8:15-8:20 and wanted to pick it up a bit, but made deal with myself to hold back until mile 17. I had been fooled by this feeling of second half exhilaration before - but not this time.

At mile 20, it was on! I had paced long enough, it was time to make sure all of my limbs were still attached, and pick up the tempo. I tried to imagine the last six miles as a 10k race, or the 10k after an Olympic distance triathlon. Now it was a mental game. Tired, but pushing through, I realized that I had enough left in the gas tank to make it to the finish line by my goal time. I wasn't going to bonk, shit myself, or see Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for all of those tempo runs.

I am grateful for the training, the day (perfect weather), my friends . . . and the Boston Qualifying time is nice too. I want to thank Matt (deemed "Run Husband" from henceforth), Gemma, Deirdre, Andrew (the 3:40 pace team), and everyone on our Facebook page for helping to keep me on pace - literally and virtually. I will use my new pacing abilities in every aspect of my training. But, I will probably still panic and speed to the gas station when my gas light goes on.