A marathon is a particular beast. It’s a stressful endeavour that sits outside our regular physiological capacity, requiring plenty of training for all but the most gifted runners – which I am not. A marathon isn’t just two half marathons glued together. While a half can be completed using only the fuel (glycogen) stored in our muscles and liver, a marathon requires a top up, because after about 32 kilometres that fuel is spent, and that’s where most of us meet “the wall.” So preparing for a marathon really requires training the body to use fat as fuel, which helps get us to the finish line. Also a slow ramp up of distance and time on our feet helps prepare the joints, muscles, and the mind for the length of a marathon.
So I ran my first marathon this month, and, under the circumstances, it went well. While out on the course, I came to appreciate how so much of our running ability has to do with what our mamas and papas gave us when they made the great choice of sharing their DNA. I saw people who were making their way to the finish line when I still had 14 kilometres to go – and some weren’t those lithe sporty specimens you see in Nike ads. Not a few were clunky lurching runners, who looked like they wouldn’t be able to complete a 10k let alone a marathon. Dr. Noakes’ tome, The Lore of Running, explains that there is only so much we can do to improve our performance through training. There is a performance ceiling based roughly on our VO2 max (the maximum volume of oxygen that can be utilized in one minute during maximal exercise). There’s a reason athletic scouts go trolling high schools for top athletes – you either have those beautiful 16 foot ceilings in your living room or you don’t (I’ve got 5 foot ceilings, so I have to hunch a lot – and train like hell). That being said, just because you’ve got a high performance ceiling, doesn’t mean it’ll play out with a spot in the NBA or The Tour de France. A lot of factors add up to the success of an athlete – not the least is mental prowess.
Based on my marathon time, I suspect the running gods did not endow me with any supernatural athletic gifts. After about 30 kilometres, I really started to feel the loss of spring in my step. Running became a grinding, un-poetic affair. No cinematic Chariots of Fire moments for me. This is when the real work started, and I had to dig deep, because my brain was signalling that it would be far more comfortable if I just stopped. It’s at these moments you have to embrace the discomfort and push on. Half a dozen times, I walked for up to a minute (often as I passed through water stations), taking the opportunity to drink and shake out my legs. I found that walking actually helped reset my posture — technique tends to get sloppy as fatigue sets in.
So a few things I took away from the race:
Focus on the things you can control. I couldn’t control the fact that I caught my son’s cold a few days before the race. At the start line, I decided not to focus on how I was feeling. Otherwise, I’d have to listen to that whining voice, “I can’t breathe. I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep.” Instead, I focused on my race day plan, which was to run in a particular heart rate zone (65-70% of my working HR) so that I wouldn’t run out of energy half-way through the race or drop dead, which, sadly, someone did on race day. In fact, on the road I passed a dozen or so crumpled figures, who had collapsed from the effort. I also couldn’t control the fact that the heat of race day was 15 degrees warmer than anything I had trained in during my winter prep, so I ran conservatively and only started to build some speed in the final kilometres when I was absolutely convinced I wouldn’t bonk (In the last 7k, I passed 52 people, and 2 people passed me). Closing in on the finish line, I passed a woman in a wide-brimmed sun hat and a dude wearing a ballet tutu (I was running among the elites). Other things I could control: preparation. I ate high quality carbs for a few days leading up to the race, visualized the race course and the pace I would be going, then packed all gear the night before. I got up at 4:45am, so I could leisurely eat breakfast, drink a coffee, and Bixi bike to the shuttle bus that would take me to the start line. No stress.
Race rehearsal. I treated my training runs like a rehearsal for the race, testing gear to make sure it served me well on race day. I ran in the Mizuno Wave Universe 4s, and they were seriously great. I could feel my mid-foot at 25k, but I had no blisters or numbness, and at the end of the race, my feet felt more rested than any other part of me. I was running in Salomon Exo compression gear – shorts, calf guards, and shirt, and the 12-Set water pack, all of which I found super comfy and never a distraction while running. Fueling is another thing you want to experiment with before race day. For me, I hate eating when I run. After about two hours, everything tastes disgusting. I often run up to 90 minutes on cool days without food or water. On long training runs, I drink Carbo-Pro, which is a highly refined complex carbohydrate that dissolves tastelessly into water. It requires very little effort to process into energy, which is what you want. Instant fuel. The downside is that I had to carry the added weight of two litres of water for the marathon.
The marathon doesn’t end at the finish line. You gotta fuel up right away – carbs and some protein and minimal fats to replenish your depleted body. Hence, I had to skip my sister’s ridiculously good brownies until the end of the day, when I had a good amount of clean carbs and proteins in the system. After the race, I ate lots of alkaline-forming foods that didn’t tax the metabolic system and helped speed recovery and reduce inflammation – including spinach, quinoa, coconut water, Vega protein powder (25g of protein per scoop!), ginger, etc.
Active recovery. This is a big one. I don’t think humans were meant to be sedentary. After a big effort, it’s a good idea to do some low intensity movement like walking or easy cycling to help flush the lactic acid and toxins from the legs and encourage a speedy recovery (if you haven’t actually injured yourself, of course). So right after the finish line, I kept moving. Then I elevated my legs, massaged, and shook them out. At home, I soaked my legs in a cold bath then a warm one to relax (I’m still confused about the hot vs. cold thing, so I did both, perhaps unwisely). I elevated the legs some more and then wore my dorkish compression socks around the house. The next day, I leisurely rode the Bixi bike to work, secretly sporting my compression socks beneath my dress pants. Sitting at a desk definitely doesn’t assist the recovery process – so I made myself look busy, walking back and forth across the office. After 3 days, my legs felt great (though I didn’t run for the first week).
Looking into the future, another beast awaits: the mountainous Meet Your Maker ultra x-country race in Whistler this September. I’ve got 4 months to train up, with lots of slow long runs planned, as well as shorter faster cross-country races that’ll hopefully keep my fast-twitch muscles awake. Check out the 5Peaks race series, if you want to enjoy a swift run in the woods.