Post Mortem: Newport Marathon

An appropriately titled post, since roughly two thirds of the way into this race I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

It’s been exactly a month since my debacle in Oregon. In the intervening weeks I’ve had time to review my training log and diary, and discuss theories with Coach Kevin.

I’ve also had bloodwork to rule out anything there. And, although I suspect I could potentially feel better with higher iron-related numbers (and may start supplementing as an experiment), I don’t feel that the root cause is to be found there. No, I think it was simply a matter of too much for too long.

A couple of days after the race, I sat in my room in the Crater Lake Lodge (during a rare evening of relative sobriety) and penned (okay, typed) a document that I entitled “Training Theories.” Here it is verbatim, with some helpful links:

What went wrong?

Peaked too early?
I was running my best in mid-April. The workouts were going very well. I had that “magical run” on April 21 when I couldn’t hold back from running fast and had wished that were a race day. A few days later I flew around the track for those sub-6:20 mile repeats. I’m convinced that if I’d simply tapered for two weeks after around April 12 and run a marathon around April 26 I would have had a great run.

Couldn’t hold fitness?
I suspect that not only was it impossible to hold that peak for the following seven weeks, but I probably managed to degrade that fitness by foolishly pushing too hard through some exhausting runs. The ones that stand out are the two very hot runs in late April (20 miles in Central Park in 91 degree heat on April 26 and that awful track session two days later). Then I ran the NJ Half on May 3, which I thought would serve as a good training run (if a lousy race), but now I think it probably dug me in further in terms of creating a deficit in recovery.

“Up and down” schedule around tuneup half?
Then the next few weeks were so up and down due to the “interruption” of that race that I suspect the result may have been a staleness that settled in slowly. This was evident, although very subtle, in the remaining key workouts. I chalked up any issues with those to weather factors or just the regular ups and downs of not being quite recovered from day to day.

The run the day before the race should have been a red flag. I chose not to wear my HRM (although now I wish I had). But at one point I decided to run a fast quarter mile. I managed to get down to 7:00 pace but I was working very hard to do so. I decided it was just nerves and didn’t give it another thought.

Possible modifications
If left to my own devices, here’s what I would do differently next time around:

  • Shorten the total training+taper cycle by about seven weeks.
  • Shorten the taper, assuming the buildup has been invigorating rather than exhausting. Maybe two weeks rather than three?
  • Introduce Mpace miles much earlier in the cycle, with a gradual buildup. More on this below.
  • If I’m going to race during training, choose the races only so much as they support the specific marathon event (similar terrain, etc.), and allow adequate recovery from them. If that means fewer races (or none), so be it.
  • Include a little bit of fast running early in the taper. I do wonder if those solid two weeks of recovery running somehow contributed to the extreme slowdown on race day.
  • Do more Mpace running on the roads rather than the track.

As for Mpace running, I think I need to do more of it and a lot earlier. I never quite clicked with that pace in terms of matching pace to appropriate effort level. Although I can race a full at 88-89% MHR, I’d be a lot more comfortable getting to a point where I’m at more like 86-87%.

What we could try is having me do a few Mpace miles every week (or every other, if we started this during basebuilding), starting with just a few miles thrown into a longer run and working up to lengthy Mpace efforts toward the end. This method worked very well for me for my Spring 08 race, when I basically took one of Pete’s plans and modified it by adding in a few more of those faster miles every week. By the time I got to the 12 mile and 10 mile Mpace efforts during this cycle, I think I was already cooked. I’m not completely sure that I even needed those two workouts, and they may have further exhausted me.

So there you have — the best I can do with the data (and gut feelings) that I have.

I know I learned a lot from this experience, as has Kevin. When we were talking a few days after the race he said, “I have to remember that you’re a mortal.” By that he meant that between the 9 week basebuilding period (during which I got faster) and the following 22 weeks of training, it seemed like I had the capacity to absorb any amount of work and continue to flourish. That durability and work ethic, when coupled with a capacity for self-denial and dare I say irrational optimism, added up to  our both missing some subtle yet insistent signs.

Looking back, I think the cracks were beginning to show at the tail end of April in that I was really struggling to hit times in workouts (and the NJ half wasn’t even close). It was easy to attribute those problems to other forces, but I’ll be a lot more attentive going forward to, as well as more communicative about, the qualitative aspects of the work. Heart rate data is valuable. But seeing and acknowledging that you’re working way too hard, regardless of what the stupid watch says, is more important than any data.

Hot weather training presents its own challenges, of course, but the plan I’m getting will allow for it. The timing looks to work out to around a 14 week training schedule, including the taper (which we discussed shortening). I’m hopeful that between a shorter training cycle and having learned some important lessons, I can look forward to a happier experience in Sacramento come December. (knock wood)

18 Responses

  1. Great analysis! You are definitely right about how a race in the middle of training can have negative affects due to the recovery time needed . An added bonus of a shorter training cycle is that it is less likely injury will be a problem too.

    Good luck training for Sacramento.

    • Thanks, Scott. I think a tuneup race is still a good idea, but going forward I’ll be looking at more like 6 weeks out for a half, or something shorter if it’s closer to the goal race.

      Injury shminjury. That’s one issue I’ve been very lucky not to have had to deal with (so far).

  2. Thank you for posting that. Lessons for us all, particularly the qualitative record part.

  3. What you say makes sense. So much of training, and recovery, is personal. For you, with your high mileage, you have to be particularly careful. Interesting that you think your timing was off and that you peaked too soon. That’s perhaps the most important insight for you. (I’ll note that Daniels starts MP work early on.)

  4. This is really fascinating stuff. I found it interesting that many of the indicators could easily be interpreted differently at the time. For example, the tough 20 mile run in Central Park could reasonably be seen as a natural reaction to the tough conditions. Similarly, the “magical run” could be seen as a sign that things were working, rather than a premature peak. Finally, I’m impressed that you draw a significant distinction between 88 – 89 percent MHR and 86 – 87 percent. Assuming a MHR of 180, that’s a maximum variation of about five BPM. I think my HR could fluctuate that much over the same route depending on the conditions that day.

    • On that point about the “magical run” — I agree completely with this. Just to clarify: I don’t necessarily think that I “peaked early”. (I know, my words: I said “peak”). I’m not even sure there’s really such a thing in training for a long distance like the marathon; it seems more a phenomenon in the realm of sprint-to-middle distance stuff, for some reason). Rather, I think I hit the edge beyond which extra work was going to be detrimental. It’s a subtle difference to me. Maybe I’m splitting hairs.

      I think the run in Central Park wasn’t an indicator that something was amiss. Instead, I think running it (and a few other dumb runs I shouldn’t have done) contributed to the subsequent fatigue and took something that had been working and royally screwed it up.

      Also, my Max HR is around 208. So the variance in BPMs is quite big for me as I move through the different aerobic zones.

      • Peaking early is this definition exactly: “beyond which extra work was going to be detrimental”. It definitely occurs in marathon training, I know of a few people from the RW Marathon Training forum who’ve experienced it and have adjusted their training and tapers to keep it from happening again. This is one of the reasons Hudson’s workouts (especially race-pace workouts) are timed in a certain way so that you don’t peak early.

  5. Excellent analysis! I agreed with all the new changes – the taper section spoke to me especially. That’s how I’d always interpreted a taper to be, less quantity but keeping the quality runs there so leg speed stays sharp. I also love the increase on mpace work – I became a huge proponent of race pace practice over this last year and can’t help but feel that getting the body used to it makes it less jarring when the time comes to race it.

  6. Ah, it was Sacramento. Nice.

    I’m anxious to see how your next round of marathon training ends up. My opinion (for whatever it’s worth) is that the marathon pace runs (and faster) are really important. I’ve always been an advocate of quality over quantity approach. I hope this change in strategy will bring you great success.

  7. Looks good Julie and it is better for a 12 a14 weeks training…
    You can train hard and i think that when the week training is about more than 100 miles!, thats good voor the ultra run, but not for a marathon.
    What i now about ather marathon runners is that they run about 100km in the week about 4 a 3 weeks before the marathon….

    Julie, i think you do the good thing now..


    • I’m happier with the prospects of a shorter training cycle, Rinus. Although I’m still a believer in high mileage for marathon training (for some, not all). You won’t change my mind there. 🙂

  8. “durability and work ethic” that leads to downfall — this sounds familiar, and norwegian.

    • I suspect you suffer the same unfortunate personality traits — although I think they’re expressed in a different venue (a certain airless, very high off the ground one) than mine are.

      Also, I can’t believe you read this blog. You must be bored shitless 95% of the time.

  9. I like the word verbatim – ever since having Clancy of The Overflow read to me in primary school.

    Anyway, I was pretty much expecting a post mortem like this.

    My take is you’ve got most of the remedies right, although I’m not with you on choosing races that support the marathon event. I think you’d gain something physiologically from doing short flat races that are outside your comfort zone (5k to 10k). Short races also have the advantage of requiring little or no recovery (and don’t suffer much from being ‘trained through’), unlike longer ‘support’ races. Couldn’t Mpace ‘support’ type running be done in training runs?

    I agree with the short taper. 2 weeks (for you) seems plenty. During a taper, you need to balance out the decreased volume with more intensity, or you risk losing condition. That bloke Dave I was telling you about again ran 34k runs on the Saturday and Sunday the week before Gold Coast and ran a PB of 2:24:30. Long tapers (for some people) aren’t necessary.

    Another thing that might be worthwhile – I’ve been reading some very interesting stuff on heart-rate variability from Canute – – you can monitor ‘staleness’ or overtraining with a Suunto t6c. They’re popular with triathletes (who are always in danger of overtraining). If HRV isn’t sufficient on any particular day, you can postpone a hard session. Might be worth thinking about if you have the dollars.

    • Oy, more gadgets. Although given that even the obvious signals haven’t been enough for me to spot the obvious, maybe another stupid watch is what I need (either that or a sledgehammer). I’ll read up on HRV…thanks for the entré into a whole new world of data analysis.

      And, yep, I think you’re right about shorter races as being of value. I tend to do halfs and up during training (with the rare “short” 15K). It’s those I want to cut down on. Despite running like shit, I enjoyed the 5 miler I did a few weeks back — it was over with so quickly!

  10. With over-training, it’s difficult to spot signals (no matter how obvious) until it’s too late – that’s why I think this particular gadget could be very useful (if it works!) for athletes like yourself who are pushing the limits in training. It looks like the ‘recovery version’ of the software on the Finish site would work well with the watch.

    If the HRV theories are correct, then it shows up immediately, so action can be taken before a runner digs themselves into a hole through over-training. Also, optimising training would seem to be a big advantage – doing an easy run on a day that might have been scheduled for a hard session. Of course, you’d have to be willing to be flexible in following a training plan, but the outcomes would seem to outweigh that minor inconvenience.

  11. Sorry, Finnish, not Finish!

  12. […] the risk is clear from what happened to Julie, who I mentioned, at Newport. Something happened, it wasn’t good, she DNFed. But damn if she didn’t dust herself off and invest in […]

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