Personal Experiences from Racing the Distance
Over the last 5 years, only two races come to mind that I feel I wasn’t able to race to my ability and current fitness level. In 2012, I went into the Honolulu Marathon under prepared and a little over confident. I learned an invaluable lesson that day on racing 26.2 miles- it served me well. I had a burning desire after that race to take my training much more serious- it allowed me to toe the line with a higher degree of self-awareness and by default significantly improved fitness.
Over the next 5 years, I raced no less than 75 events and although every race wasn’t a PR- I raced competitive. The marathon is a different beast on many different levels. I learned that from Honolulu and avoided racing this distance for a few years while I focused on lowering my ½ marathon time and racing triathlons or anything with an endurance flavor. When I finally did race another marathon again, it was part of a 3 day-4 race event known as the Genghis Khan Adventure Festival held in China. The marathon was on the morning of the 2nd day and was a hilly trail marathon. I ran 2:54, if I remember correctly, in the cool climate of the Inner Mongolia region of China.
Fast forward to last summer, I put together a short but dedicated marathon training plan leading up to Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. I was able to go 2:40:55 on roughly 50 miles a week. This race provided me my Boston qualifier and a new PR. I felt very confident I could run in the mid 2:30s off a more dedicate training program. My short term goal was to lower my ½ PR on the way to building up to Boston in April 2017.
During the process of saying goodbye to Guam and the tropical climate I had come to appreciate, I injured my abdomen area by developing a sports hernia similar to a previous injury. Both injuries were the result of hammering away hard intervals on a track or in the case of the last injury on a street oval with tight corners. Sport hernias are quite common in soccer players and running backs- basically anyone cutting in the process of moving forward with a lot of force risk tearing their muscle lining. In my case, it seems to be from running 400/800 intervals at sub 5 pace with a tight or sudden turn. Anyway, it is not impossible to train with a sports hernia, but it certainly takes away from the enjoyment. Every run from that day forward has been painful- but tolerable.
TRAINING AND RACING APPROACH
My first tune-up race stateside was the quite competitive Alexandria’s Turkey Trot 5 Miler. Stop me if you have heard this one before, but I was able to run a PR (5:12 mile avg.) race against a good field. Michael Wardian lives nearby in Arlington and rocked up for the event running with his dog (there is a category for running with a dog). In the end, I put 40 secs. on Wardian and his canine. Wardian is a living legend in the distance running community- mainly due to his ability to race back-to-back-to- back at any distance.
The next race on the schedule was the Kiawah Island Half Marathon that was designed to become the book end of the first half of my Boston Marathon training cycle. I was able to race a competitive race (3rd overall) and went on to PR in 1:12:47 or a 5:33 avg. The only downside to this race was tweaking my hamstring with 3 miles to go. (Imagery: Training Log December)
As I approached the New Year and the start of my Boston training cycle- that hamstring would continue to impact my training. In early, January I decided to take a week off and only ride to see if my hamstring would fully recover. Oddly enough during my transition and move back to the U.S., I unintentionally abandoned regular chiropractor and massage treatments to counter the strains running puts on my body.
Returning to my training plan, we (Asyah and I) had only planned one build up race (½ marathon) as part of our training cycle. Our training typically includes increasing mileage for 3-4 weeks before backing off slightly one week to recover fully. Additionally, we prescribe to a 9-day training cycle with these guidelines: Easy, Easy, HARD, Easy, Easy, HARD, Easy, Easy, LONG. The general idea is you have more days to recover and can focus on really quality efforts on the hard and long training days.
Our tune-up race was ran on Feb. 25th at the Swamp Rabbit Trail ½ Marathon in Greenville, S.C. The event went well, but my body was at a breaking point. We selected this race due to the downhill nature of this course that would potentially benefit us in Boston since the first 10 miles are downhill. However, my body was near a breaking point with hamstring, plantar issues, and my hernia all pulling on me in different ways. I ran a 1:13:31 without really racing the last 3 miles, so I was pleased enough with my fitness- but seriously worried if these injuries would derail my Boston training.
My goal when I drew out my training plan leading to Boston was to gradually increase to 75 miles at the height of my training. Unfortunately, I was only able to get two weeks at 60 miles, but on the positive side managed to get 95% of the hard workouts and long runs in. But, I required many more rest days in between and lower mileage than desired.
As we approached the last month of our training, we decided to run the Baltimore – Annapolis Trail Marathon since it was literally out the back door and would suffice as our last long run. Neither Aysha nor I intended to race it all out and ended up starting the race in 45-48 degree temps. This is ideal running weather since we had been running in cool temps the last two months. I cruised through the first half in 1:22 and finished the marathon in 2:45 on a slightly long course. I was really excited how my body reacted and that I was never forced to really put myself into a bad position to run that time. Aysha ran a 3:13 that was a 10 min PR and both of us recovered without any real signs fatigue.
As Boston approached, I made the decision to cut our mileage and intensity over the last two weeks- tapering. I went from a high of 60 miles during the B&A marathon to 48, 38, and 15 miles race week. As for intensity, my last hard workout was 15 days before the race. (Imagery: April Training and Taper)
I’ll have to be quite honest that I didn’t research how elites or even good runners approach racing Boston before the race. I talked with a few friends that have ran it and heeded their advice on the 2nd half was significantly more challenging that the front half. Although I heard it close to the race, but I didn’t put any serious thought into that the downhills along the first 10 miles really can do damage to your body. In essence, I consider myself a strong trail runner (both up and down) and had ran a 2:54 on a course that gains and loses 1,400 ft.- so why should I be overly concerned with a course that starts at 450 ft.? In the end, this would be one of three fatal errors I made leading up to this race. (Imagery: All Smiles Pre-Race)
I knew from both my recent marathon and some workouts that I use to determine my pace that I was ok with running 5:55 miles on the front end without risking imploding on the course. My goal was to cross the half in 1:17:xx and hang on to run a 1:20 on the back end. It seems quite realistic on paper.
From the onset of this race, I wasn’t able to generate the turnover comfortably. It was the hottest I had run in since Guam and I decided early on to focus on 6 min miles versus running myself into the ground from gun. Although I was in Wave 1-Coral 1- it was still very tight for the first 6 to 7 miles. I thought it would actually be hard to try to run faster than 5:55s as I was surrounded by guys and a few girls doing just that.
As we made it to the famous Wellesley College scream tunnel around 20K, I was pretty sure my plan wasn't going to last another 20K. Even at this point, I was oblivious to what would unfold after 17 miles. I slowed somewhat to ensure I run a respectable 2:40ish marathon…. I started to fade hard at 18 but knew I could run a 2:50 even if the last 6 miles were all uphill.
What I didn’t take into account was that I consumed way too much water along the course. With aide stations every mile and watching runners dropping out from 15 miles on- I had started consuming water at every aide stations. Only a sip or two, but I’m very accustomed to not drinking water for a half marathon and only took two sips across the last marathon I ran- albeit it was cold that day. I got to mile 20 or 21 and I pulled off to use the portlet- as I stopped and gave all the water back plus any GUs and I imagine all my remaining fuel, it was a different race from this point. As I started back on the course, my legs cramped to the point I couldn’t get going again for a few miles.
#2- Only twice in my racing have I over hydrated when I was concerned of dehydrating on a course.
LESSONS FROM BOSTON
I think it is very important to take a moment to reflect on your races- especially those that don’t go as planned. For whatever reason, I wasn’t caught up in the hyper excitement of racing Boston that might normally trip up competitive runners. I ran my race from the beginning- even adjusting a little for the heat.
There were two mistakes made leading up to Boston with training and a catastrophic one on race day that made the event pretty tough for me.
#1- Running volume needs to be much higher to race well at Boston. I would recommend adding two-a-day runs and specifically for me 80-90 mile weeks at the height of my training.
#2- Incorporating long runs with significant elevation gain and loss. Critical to the development of leg strength from running downhill and rebounding quickly to run long up hills.
#3- My final error has been balancing hydration when I’m running race pace efforts. Impossible to predict weather at Boston- so you need to be comfortable drinking throughout the race.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
Although I said I was never really caught up by the excitement to run Boston, I am 100% bought into the mystique of the race now. For me now, there would be a significant void if I never ran fast at Boston. Although I need to get healthy before I get back into serious running, it is my goal to run in the 2:30s. This goal consumes me at the moment!
As I noted, I would change my approach only slightly by gradually running more volume and elevation leading up to the race. I have a desire to race a few other marathons over the next year that will let me gauge how my training is going well before I toe the line in Hopkinton. Additionally, I want to test my resolve across a longer race, but running Boston will remain a driving force behind a lot of my races the next year.
At the start of the Boston Marathon, I was in the front coral as the elite runners make their way along the side to the front. The announcer takes a moment to list off the elite runners and two racers that receive the most applauds are- Meb & Wardian (ran a 2:27 by the way). The energy these guys bring to road racing and marathons has help to elevate our sport and continues to push many guys/gals to race well beyond their perceived limits.
The Boston Marathon was both a humbling and rewarding experience. I feel anyone with good general fitness can qualify for Boston if they set a gradual improvement plan & stay committed to that end. Trust me- you want to share this experience!
The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.
- Juma Ikangaa 3 x Boston Marathon Runner-up