2009 Chicago Marathon

February 13th, 2010

In 2008, I noticed I had several marathon-running friends. During their training, I gave plenty of unsolicited advice, drawing on my vast experience as a mediocre high-school cross-country runner a decade-and-a-half prior. Eventually I realized that was an insulting position to be giving advice from, so I decided to remedy that slightly and acquire some fresher knowledge and experience by running a 10K. It would be a way to remember what running felt like, to relate in a small way to my friends and their marathon training.

I had done no serious (or even unserious) running for a decade, so I thought I should train a bit before trying a 10K, with the emphasis on “a bit”. Over a three-week period, I went on three runs of about 2 miles apiece. Then on October 4th, a week before the 2008 Chicago Marathon, I measured out a 10K course at a local park, started my watch, and ran it. I think I had a vague hope of breaking 48 minutes, so I was pretty happy when my watch read 44:44 at the end, even if I had to lay on the grass for half an hour before I could hobble home. Later on, I came across the McMillan Running Calculator, punched in that time, and it told me I could run a 3:30:00 marathon. Huh.

Jump ahead six months to late April, where, two days before registration closed, I signed up for the 2009 Chicago Marathon. No, I hadn’t caught the running bug. I hadn’t run a single time since that 10K, and wouldn’t start again until June. Due to the ever-growing marathoning culture I had become familiar with, the marathon had simply become a goal I wanted to check off my list of lifetime achievements. And I thought there would be no better year to do it than 2009: I was about to head out on a month-long, 1500-mile bicycle tour through the desert canyons of the American Southwest. Thirty days filled with six hours per day of intense cardiovascular effort ought to be a good launching point for marathon training.

So two weeks after returning from the bike trip, I started in on Hal Higdon’s 18-week Marathon Training Plan, Intermediate 1. Of course, I was doing nearly everything “wrong”. Everyone (myself included) will tell you that it’s stupid to start into a marathon training program from nothing; ideally I would have been running regularly for at least a year beforehand. On top of that, I was leaping right over the Novice training programs, and going straight to one for experienced marathoners. On top of that, I was training with a goal time (3:30:00) in mind. Everyone will tell you your only goal for your first marathon should be to complete it; thinking about time can lead to failure, and that should wait until at least your second marathon.

I had a good reason for violating these three training rules, but it was because I was violating a broader cultural rule: there would be no second marathon for me. I had no interest in becoming “a runner”. I would be a mere interloper in the running community: a running poseur, donning the mantle for a single, unsensible-but-fashionable event, and then calling it quits. Thus, I needed to throw everything I had at this race and the limited training time I had allowed myself, so that I could achieve a result I would be proud of. My imaginary lifetime-checklist doesn’t merely have a yes/no check-box next to “Run a Marathon”. It also has a line for my finishing time. My worst fear was finishing with a disappointing time, because that might require me to abandon my one-and-done plan and invest in a whole new cycle of training. That fear of a new commitment ended up being my strongest motivator.

So in the second week of June, I began the 18-week Intermediate 1 training program. One important thing that drew me to the Intermediate 1 plan over the Novice 1 plan was the inclusion of runs at marathon pace. Since I had a time goal for the race (even if it was totally irrational), it seemed like a requirement to have time goals during training as well, otherwise it would be impossible to predict how I might fare in the race. My marathon pace (and thus, fastest training runs) would be 8:00 minutes per mile, which initially sounded pretty reasonable since my 10K-with-no-training had been at 7:12 pace.

For the first four weeks, I stuck with it pretty well, though I got slower as time went on; I quickly learned that running sub-8:00 pace may not be too hard when I was completely rested, but it was a whole different story when suddenly running five days a week. Week 4’s 11-mile long run produced my first injury (foot) 9 miles in. Over the next week I only ran a total of 8 miles, partly to let my foot rest up, but mostly because I did a duathlon (my first organized event since high school) and I switched over to training on my bike for that period. I finished in the top 30% in the duathlon, which was encouraging, because that’s where I’d need to be in the marathon to be in the ballpark of 3:30:00.

The next two weeks went fairly well, until Week 7’s 14 mile long run, which had to stop short of ten miles because my knee completely froze up. That had been happening for a few weeks, but this was the worst by far. That’s when I realized that two back-to-back tough runs on the weekend were more than my body was willing to handle, so I backed off to the Novice 2 plan. Novice 2 keeps the pace runs of Intermediate 1, but moves them from Saturday to Wednesday, giving an extra day of rest around the weekend long run.

Again, the next three weeks went fairly well, until week 10’s 17 mile long run, where my knee once again froze up after 14 miles. This was really starting to concern me, since everyone says how important the long run is to marathon training, and I’d now failed to complete three of them. But my self-diagnosis of IT Band injury seemed to be correct, and I finally came upon an effective self-treatment, so for the last eight weeks of training, I nailed every single run at the correct distance and pace, including two 20 milers.

Thus, as the end of training neared, I was pretty confident in my ability to cover the 26.2 miles, but I was seriously doubting my ability to do it anywhere near 8:00/mile pace. Sure, nearly every Wednesday morning I’d been doing a 5-to-8 mile run at that pace, but that always felt like it was right at the edge of my ability, and the idea of keeping up that pace for 26.2 seemed insane. The best I had done so far was a 13.1-mile training run in an accidental 1:45:00 (8:00/mile pace), inspired by the idea of beating a friend’s half-marathon time. I’m not much of a fan of organized events, but in retrospect, I should have done that one officially, because it would have qualified me for Start Corral C, ahead of all the slower people, which would have been a big help on race day. But the knowledge that I was good enough to be in a Start Corral was a huge confidence boost, at least until I remembered that a “half-marathon” is still only, well, half of a marathon.

I searched a lot of forums, looking for any evidence that my goal wasn’t insane. Everyone simply said “trust the taper”: the three weeks of decreasing mileage before the race would allow my body to rest up and make that 8:00/mile pace suddenly seem easy again. But I wanted data! Almost everything I do is very tech- and data-focused, and marathon training was no different. I used Google Earth to map and measure my training routes, did every run with my G1 Android phone in an armband, running GPS and BuddyRunner software to record pace and distance, and also using it to play music. I kept a log in a Google Spreadsheet, including distance, pace, weather, and occasional heart-rate info. So I was looking for race results from people who had trained similarly with a time goal in mind, to see how much I could really “trust the taper”. Unfortunately there wasn’t much data to be found, but I don’t know that I had any options besides “just go for it” anyhow.

Race day was freezing cold, about 36 degrees, so if I was forced into a second marathon, at least it wouldn’t have been because of the weather. The first 10K had me swerving around crowds of people to pass, so I started out a touch slow, but it was easy. A pace that nearly put me at my limits a few weeks before was just a comfortable cruise now. So yeah, the taper works, it’s kind of amazing. I pretty much hit my marks as closely as I could have hoped, and crossed the 20-mile-marker exactly on pace. After that, things started going a little less well. I began feeling a little worse, though I never felt like I hit a “wall”: it seemed like I was pretty much going through the same motions, but the clocks revealed that I was going slower and slower. Still, at that point I could do 10-minute miles and finish faster than 3:45:00, which would have made me plenty happy. Then as I turned onto the Roosevelt Rd. hill, I attacked it with a bit too much excitement, and my right hamstring cramped. I walked for a step and a half, briefly terrified that even 10-minute miles would be out of reach. But luckily I was able to get back to running, and soon reached the finish. Time: 3:35:30.

I was completely blown-out. It took me nearly 30 minutes to shuffle from the finish to the meet-up area, where I spent the next 30 minutes sitting on the ground trying to fight off hypothermia. And it couldn’t have been more perfect. If I had come away with anything left in the tank, it would have allowed a seed of doubt in, thinking that I could have done better, which is the last thing that I wanted. So even though it wasn’t 3:30:00, my time was still within 2.6% of the goal I had recklessly picked a year earlier. I’d say the training plan worked amazingly well; I would have had no chance at achieving that time if I had simply let things fall where they may. Setting an aggressive but sensible goal made me believe I might be able to go that fast, which is a hugely important part of actually going that fast. I was completely happy to write “3:35:30” on my checklist, and had absolutely no problem declaring my retirement from marathoning.