Sometimes when you reach for the stars… you wind up doubled over on the side of the road!
Well… I finished it. And that’s about the only positive thing I can say about my Long Beach Marathon experience on Sunday. It was treacherous.
Actually, it was a beautiful day to run, and I don’t believe any of the concerns I had a couple days prior (light groin strain and a tender IT band) really factored in much. I felt them at times, but they were pretty much a non-issue, I think.
So here’s the story:
I wanted to come in under 4:00, which meant I needed to average around a 9:00 to 9:10 pace. My strategy was to take it easy for the first 5 or 6 miles and try to stay in the 9:20 or so range (once past mile 1), then pick it up to maybe an 8:50 neighborhood pace from 6 to 22 to make up for the slower warm-up miles. From there, I would hope to be evened out and have enough in the tank to stay with my average pace for the last 4 miles and squeak in under 4:00.
The Race Begins…
I wound up getting to the starting line late (as usual), so I went out with a horde of folks who were scheduled to take a considerably slower pace than I intended. So for the first few miles, I felt boxed in at times and had to zig and zag through a lot of the runners to keep my pace up. This would prove to be a challenge along the way as other parts of the course narrowed significantly (especially along the beach). And as we got beyond mile 6, this would sometimes make the sub-9:00 pace difficult, as I was constantly trying to find little holes in the field to navigate through.
The good news is, as we approached the half-way mark at 13, I was just where I needed to be; right around 2:00. The bad news is, I was starting to feel it! Simply put, I felt like I was already struggling to keep up that sub-9:00 pace… not such a great feeling when you know you’re only half-way through this bitch!
But, I kept my form together, kept on plowing, and kept telling myself to “trust the training. You’ve done everything you were supposed to do to prepare. You can push through this.” That little pep talk lasted a couple more miles, even as I saw my pace begin to slip back over the 9:00 mark between miles 12 through 14.
“He Falls Apart!”
Then on 15, the unthinkable happened. As I was forcing the pace and feeling an unusual amount of fatigue in my hams and hip flexors, I started feeling a bit of cramping settling into my left hamstring. And just before my brain could fully process the prospect of having another one of those debilitating Charley horse-style cramps I got in the LA Marathon – boom! That searing pain set in, and I was quickly hobbling over to the side of the road, grabbing onto my leg like it was about to fall off!
And then, right out loud, there in the crisp open air for any passersby to hear, I uttered the most appropriate word in the English language for this occasion:
I was stunned. Mile 15? Are you shittin’ me? I could not fathom that this would happen again, let alone with nearly 11 miles left to go! So I dug my knuckles into my leg and then tried to stretch it out a bit, before slowly starting to run again.
20 steps later – boom! Same shit. It was unbelievable. And never mind the hobbling factor; these kind of cramps are unbearably painful. I mean, my ass was doubled-over, trying to grind the pain out of my leg.
And friends, that was pretty much the way of it for the rest of the race. I had to actually walk a great deal of it, doing a little intermittent jogging as I could, before dealing with a parade of these Charley horses, which were breaking out in both legs in my hams and calves.
I stopped at a couple med stations along the way, where they sprayed some kind of cooling shit on my legs, and that seemed to help the cramps a bit. And I stopped regularly, to grind these bitches out with my knuckles. But man, there is little else as discouraging as walking past the 20-mile marker, knowing there would be 6 more miles of this bullshit. And yes, for some reason, it made that much of a difference to walk. Once I would start trying to do even a light and easy jog, I would soon feel that swell of fatigue, followed by another cramp somewhere. Needless to say, under these conditions, it totally wiped me out.
And just to illustrate how often I was hunched over on the side of the road or just walking, my pace for mile 19 was 16:41! (No, I didn’t stop for lunch somewhere, but was likely off the course for several minutes at one point.) By the time I gutted a token jog across the finish line, it had taken me roughly 50 minutes longer to do the second half of the race as opposed to the first half. My final time was a pitiful 4:51:46.
For some strange reason, I felt compelled to capture the agony on my iPhone around mile 25. This vid says it all:
Okay, some perspective; I’m glad I at least finished. It’s a pretty cool looking medal, and will look good in the sock drawer next to my LA one. (The free t-shirt was okay, as well, but would’ve preferred black instead of white.)
Seriously, I’m glad I at least completed it, although those little Red Cross-looking medical jeeps that kept zipping by were tempting to flag down at times! But of course, after all that training – and what I thought was a near-perfect, injury-free training season – it is profoundly disappointing to miss your goal time by more than 50 motherfucking minutes!
So what happened? What I know for sure is this; it’s hard to say for sure. Dehydration? Can’t imagine it. But, I suppose it’s possible, based on the fact that I took one piss at around the half-way point, then didn’t piss again until 5 or 6 hours later, once I got back home! That said, I was drinking a steady amount of water in the days prior, as well as before and during the race, so I don’t know how I could’ve done much more. Electrolyte issue? Really can’t imagine it. My pre-race diet was immaculate, plus I was supplementing with some electrolyte gels and salt tablets, so I was stockpiling electrolytes up the ass.
No, my best guess is this: an uninterrupted 9:00 pace for a marathon is simply beyond my capability right now. I think it’s more a matter of simple over-exertion… of forcing the muscles to perform at a level they’re not (yet) capable of performing at, thus causing them to go on strike via cramping. Because in those moments, it truly feels like my body is just shutting down. Plus, I gotta believe that all those years of heavy squats and the surplus of muscle it built up in my legs cannot be helping. Just seems like all that extra fast-twitch fiber in my legs is hanging around just waiting to cramp up eventually if the legs are forced into over-drive mode for that kind of duration.
As I mentioned last Spring, this whole goal of getting under 4:00 was suggested to me by my coach, who had timed me on a 3-mile run. Based on my pace there, he felt like I could do a sub-4:00 marathon. I never really understood the logic of the calculations, but just went with it as my goal and built many of my training paces around the conventional wisdom that your long-run training pace would be around one minute slower than your marathon pace.
Again, it sounds good in theory (with the idea that a slower training pace will facilitate better recovery time, and less chance of injury, etc.) BUT – I still don’t understand it in practice. Hell, two weeks ago, I did a 16-miler at an 8:50 average pace and was pretty much wiped out. I don’t think I could’ve continued for much longer at that pace. And I remember thinking, “How in the hell am I supposed to magically be able to do an additional 10 miles at this same general pace, WITHOUT the little water breaks and stopping at red lights, etc.? Because of some miraculous taper-down period? Because there will be spectators on the side of the road yelling anonymously into the throngs of runners cruising by? Because I’m running with the ‘camaraderie’ of thousands of other runners?” I don’t see it.
So – I don’t think there was anything wrong with my training, diet, recovery practices, or anything else. In fact, I don’t really know what I could’ve done differently that would’ve had that much of an impact on the run at all (with the exception of maybe taking it easier on the first of my two taper-down weeks).
I think my problem is with my pace. Pure and simple. I’m probably more of a 10:00 minute-per-mile guy at a marathon, vs. a 9:00 minute-per-mile guy. I’m probably more of a 4:20 range guy, than a sub-4:00 guy. At least for now. And hell, even those 20 and 22-mile runs I did at a 10-minute pace; they weren’t easy, and they always included a small (but welcomed) amount of unrecorded “downtime,” filling up water jugs, etc.
I’m looking forward to hitting the weights a bit harder and focusing on some shorter distance races for the immediate; maybe a few 10Ks and Half-Marathons. I always consult my old pal Blas Elias (killer drummer for Blue Man Group, Slaughter, etc.) on these matters, since he’s a real-deal endurance athlete, and he’s in agreement: I’ll work on my speed, and as a result of hopefully completing a few more of these shorter races successfully, I’ll have a better idea of what my true marathon pace should be.
This week, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck, so I’ll rest up and try to recover as best I can.
And yes, I acknowledge that a lot of these long-winded marathon updates are probably a bit much for most of you to sit through. But I appreciate the ear and promise to bring some more cool shit to the blog asap.