Getting back to it

With “it” being marathon training.

I’m ready to dance with the capricious lady again, although it’s going to be an extended flirtation before we hit the dance floor. No fall marathon for me. Too soon. My next one will likely be Houston in January, six months from now. It’s flat, cool, has a great reputation, and is both easy and cheap to get to from NYC. I won’t even need to rent a car while there.

I’m now officially over 2009, with all its failures and disappointments. A winter and spring spent focused on just about everything but the marathon has been therapeutic. I suspect that having other new interests and friendships, running and otherwise, to pursue also provided a healthy break from three years of marathon obsession, along with some success and gratification that was absent from last year.

Accompanying this decision (and perhaps partly driving it) was another decision. Namely, to try a new coach and a new approach to training. In doing the interviews for Houston Hopefuls, a common theme that emerged was the advantage of working with someone local. Someone who can go to the track with you and note your splits, notice the dark circles under your eyes or slightly off-kilter stride, etc. Someone who is present and invested, if only because you know where they live.

I’ll be working with Sandra (Inoa) Khannouchi, who’s up in Ossining. I met Sandra when I was at the Healthy Kidney 10K press event in mid-May, interviewing her husband, Khalid, whom she coaches and manages. I ended up interviewing her as well, although at the time it hadn’t occurred to me to consider her as a possible coach. But while I was talking with her I did take note of the fact that she seemed to possess a combination of caution, confidence and optimism when it came to how she was training her star athlete to a post-surgery comeback. This made an impression on me, although perhaps only subconsciously at the time.

In the ensuing weeks, as I grappled with “what’s next?” — knowing that I didn’t feel completely at ease with the idea of spending the rest of the year pursuing good half marathon times, worrying that launching back into high mileage training might be a mistake, and hearing interesting insights from some accomplished masters runners — I started thinking that I needed to make a change.

Contacting Sandra to see if she coaches non-elites was Jonathan’s idea, actually. First I had to get over my sheepishness at approaching her: “Hi, I’m slow and old. Can you help?” It turns out that she does coach other runners, although now she’s cut way back for various reasons. Since the mid-90’s she’s coached her husband. At various times she’s coached other elites as well as recreational runners (mainly in Mexico City).

And now there’s me, a new challenge. Can she make me a faster runner even as I battle time’s rude imposition of entropy? We’ll both find out. She’s asked me to have faith in her training methods for at least 4-5 months, and I will. I have not hired her because she’s a “name” (although her resume doesn’t hurt her case) but more because I like her philosophy and because her workouts look like they’ll be effective — and, besides, she’s right there, less than half an hour away.

I spent quite awhile talking with her about goals, how her training works and how she works with runners. As for my own history, she didn’t want to know much about what came before. She is looking forward. For now, the plan is to train for a 10K, then a half, then a marathon. The theory being that I need to get faster at shorter distances before I can tackle getting faster at longer distances. This approach is being used by at least two of the women in my interview series, as well as a few of the Mini 10K elites I talked to recently.

Combined with that strategy is a focus on high quality workouts with what is for me low mileage. I’ve been running 40-50 miles average since January. The plan is to keep mileage in the 50mpw range for the foreseeable future, then work up to the mid-70s when we get into marathon training again in the fall. The training schedule is flexible, meaning if I struggle to finish a week, I just repeat it. If I’m beat up after a week, I take two days off. If a hard session is going badly, I defer it to another day. Races are highlights, but they’re not goals (other than the January marathon). The training is the goal. Getting faster is the goal. Avoiding setbacks is the goal.

My training posts will be deliberately vague about the high quality work, at Sandra’s request. Some of what I’ll be doing consists of standard workouts that anyone would recognize (12×400, anyone?). Others, however, are unusual — combinations of things that I have not seen. All of the workouts are hard, some very much so. About 40-50% of my miles will consist of hard, hard running. I haven’t tried this approach yet. Maybe it will work for me. I should know in a few months.

There are no “recovery weeks” although the days before a race will be lighter. I won’t be doing a ton of racing like I have lately, but there will be room for a few races for fun/club points, or to do as tempo efforts. And there will be a few important races to use as yardsticks to measure progress and assess readiness.

Other new things: The workouts are not on a 7 day schedule; sometimes I’ll go to the track on Tuesday, sometimes I’ll go on Saturday. Regular massages are now required, as are post-workout ice baths. There has been serious talk of altitude training — I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one, but I’m remaining open to the idea and figure that at this point I can work just about anywhere where there’s an outlet and an Internet connection. There’s more. Cross training several times a week. Stretching routines. Race visualization. Getting in the car and driving somewhere so I can run on dirt rather than pavement. Listening to my body at all times and heeding its messages whether resting, running or racing. Yes. Okay. Good. I’ll try it all. I’ll do all of it.

And still more. The HRM is generally frowned upon, as its readings, even when correct, can affect judgment and obscure larger patterns (this I know already from last year — all the data in the world didn’t help me avoid overtraining and injury). Oddly enough, I’d stopped running with the HRM on most days anyway by early last month, since it was constantly acting up and, worse, often only served as a massive mindfuck before and during races. Now its primary purpose will be to keep me from running too hard on recovery runs. Other days, it stays at home.

Training with a watch is fine, but only to record, not to use as a prescriptive device. Racing with one is actively discouraged. If you look at pictures of Khalid racing, you’ll notice that he doesn’t wear a watch. When this fact was pointed out to me, it initially blew my mind. Then it seemed strangely logical. Why would you race with a watch unless you didn’t trust your own ability to race at the appropriate effort? If you need to constantly check how fast you’re going, maybe you’re not ready to race your race yet. Or maybe you are ready, but you’ll talk yourself out of racing your best because of what your stupid watch says.

Last year was disappointing from a racing perspective, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t productive. All that high mileage running Kevin had me doing gave me a good aerobic base to build on, lots of mitochondria at the ready, and a sturdy musculoskeletal structure. This is a great starting point. And now, from here, I am throwing out almost everything I’ve done for the past two+ years and am starting all over. All I know is that I’m a hard worker and I believe that I can do better than 3:19 for the marathon.