More pre-race ponderings

[Composed at 39,000 feet]

We’re about four hours into the flight and I can tell we’re getting close. The terrain 39,000 below has turned from urban to suburban to rural and now progressively more and more hilly. I expect to spot Mount Hood in an hour or so. Then I’ll know we’re almost there.

As a side note, I just love this little “netbook.” It’s a Samsung NC10. It’s very elegant: matte white, light (under 3 lbs) and like a little toy. It boots up in about 15 seconds (which was helpful going through security) and it’s very zippy with 2 Gigs of RAM. The keyboard is almost full-size to, so it’s very easy to type quickly on.

Today was a good day for distraction. In the morning I had a six mile run to do, followed by loose ends to tie up at work before disappearing for three weeks. Then I had to finish packing, which involved checking and rechecking my numerous lists. I wanted to make sure that if I forgot something, it wouldn’t be an important thing to forget. Or, as Jonathan put it a bit more succinctly, “It had its chance to be remembered.”

Now I find myself sitting on the plane, trying to ignore the several hours of mild turbulence we’ve been suffering (and the mild nausea it’s brought on, thanks to my penchant for motion sickness) and with eyes tired from reading. My mind drifts to Saturday’s race. I’ve spent time reminding myself of all the obvious lessons I’ve learned:

  • Don’t get pulled out too fast by the crowd or your own excitement

  • Run what feels like too slow a pace in the beginning; the first 10 miles should feel easy

  • Drink water early and often

  • Take a gel at least 15 minutes before you think you’ll need it

  • Try to zone out mentally for the first 15 miles; reserve mental energy for later

  • Don’t obsess over missed mile splits and don’t try to “make up” lost seconds in subsequent miles

  • Seconds lost in the first few miles equal minutes gained in the last few

  • Don’t let anyone else set your pace

  • Focus on running each individual mile, not on how many are left

  • Pass people decisively; don’t look back

  • If it’s windy, find a big guy to run behind, or try to run in the middle of a pack

  • Never walk

  • Never quit – unless you are injured, unconscious or dead

And here are a few new tips I got from Kevin yesterday:

  • Feeling bad for the first few miles happens sometimes; mile four is too early to start telling yourself you’re having a bad day

  • Following from that, you often can’t know what sort of day you’re having until about 6-8 miles in, so remain calm

  • Don’t try to fight a headwind, because you’ll always lose; accept it and adjust your pace to the appropriate effort level

I’ve had such bad luck with weather for training and racing that it’s been hard to remain confident in what pace I can actually maintain. But I do have several things going for me.

For one, settling into something right around a 7:05 pace has happened fairly naturally in all conditions. I’ve had to work harder for that pace on some (most?) days than others. But it’s a pace I know I can run even in the worst of circumstances and it’s an easy one for me to “find” and lock into. So if I luck out and end up with good race conditions, I have a good shot at running that pace for the duration at the appropriate effort level.

I know I can run at a very high level very late in the race. I’ve run marathons at a consistent 88-89% effort for the first 20 miles and ended up in the low 90%s at the end. Unless I succumb to exhaustion (like I did at Steamtown, due to muscle damage from the early downhills), I can run strong to the finish.

I’ve also run four marathons and, if the list above is anything to go by, I’ve learned a great deal about racing that distance. I’ve had the benefit of running just one good marathon (which, while sad, is certainly not unusual), and that one good race is the one that I’ve been sitting here thinking about. Why did it go so well? How can I repeat it?

The key to racing a marathon well is simple, although not easy. It is not about “running with heart” or pushing through the wall or any of that Hollywood garbage. It’s not about wanting something badly enough, or overcoming some inherent weakness through sheer force of will. Where people want magic, there is only this dull fact: marathon racing is a purely physiological endeavor. If you are not trained to run 7:05 over 26.2 miles, you cannot run 7:05 over 26.2 miles.

Moreover, to make an even duller point, from what I’ve observed and experienced, racing a marathon well all comes down to one essential act: practicing effective energy management. This is true for people running 10:45 pace as much as it is for people running 4:45 pace.

It’s this rather dry requirement that I will bear in mind over the next few days. I will burn it into my brain so that as soon as I start running, that mantra is all I will know, all I will think and all I will do.

The reason that putting this truism into practice is not easy is that you can’t ever know how much energy you have on a given day. You may have done everything right in terms of training over the preceding months, tapering over the preceding weeks, and eating and sleeping over the preceding days. Your workouts and shorter races may have all pointed to sure success. You may even find yourself standing on the starting line feeling fantastic. But for some reason, all things being seemingly equal, the outcome is never predictable. Sometimes it’s downright disastrous. One day you run out of gas at mile 18. Another day, six months later, it’s mile 25. And perhaps on another day, you have a magical day when your energy stores seem limitless, because you’ve somehow managed to perfectly nail the rate of energy expenditure and replenishment.

I suppose that’s one of the biggest reasons why I love the marathon, both as a racer and as a fan. It’s such an unforgiving distance. Yet so satisfying to experience and witness when things come together.

To be honest, I feel strangely unconcerned about the outcome of Saturday’s race, considering the enormous effort I’ve put into getting ready for it. Whatever happens, it will be okay. Barring injury or some other catastrophe, I should easily best my last time of 3:19.

I tend toward thinking of this race as a stepping stone, a necessary stopover on the way down to the 3:00 mark. Perhaps I should give this race more weight, meaning focus on the task at hand rather than looking six months down the road to the next goal of breaking three hours. But I’m hoping that my lack of worry doesn’t stem from overconfidence as much as it does from the certainty that I’ve done everything I can to succeed.

I know I’ve done the requisite training and I know how to run the race. If for some reason I don’t do as well as I’d like to, I’ll learn something from it for next time as I’ve had to do several times before. But I’ve no doubt I’ll continue to improve over the long run.