May 29, 2014

Revenge marathons: risk vs reward

 "All it takes is all you've got," read a sign at about 39k into the Vancouver marathon. It made me smile as I struggled past it.

The mental and physical effort required to run a marathon -- 42.195 kilometres or 26 miles 385 yards -- is substantial. 

"Racing hurts, in ways both obvious and subtle," writes Joe Henderson in Marathon Training: the Proven 100-Day Program for Success.

Both your body and mind need time to recover from that effort. A general rule of thumb is that it takes at least a month to recover from a marathon, though it depends on a runner's preparation and experience as a marathoner.

Or, as Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter famously said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming.” 

Perhaps that was the reason I had trouble writing about my Vancouver race; I was already trying to forget to make space for the idea of running the next.  

I always use one key tool to help me decide about a new running goal: does the prospect excite me? If I don't feel a few butterflies in my stomach thinking about a race, a goal, I don't bother. What's the point?

The verb excite is defined as 1. to stir to activity. 2. to call forth (a reaction or emotion, for example); elicit: 3. to arouse strong feeling in. Immediately after the Vancouver marathon, the idea of running another soon stirred me to activity: checking my schedule and race calendars.

It wasn't long before I found a marathon I liked, and one that fit in terms of timing, schedule and logistics. Now it was time for another key consideration: was it a good idea to do another marathon so soon?

I knew the general answer was: no. Definitely not if you are trying to race a marathon, attempt to run a personal best. I only needed to open some of my books on running.

"If you actually race your marathons (rather than simply trying to finish), it's not a good idea to do more than about two per year," writes Alberto Salazar in Alberto Salazar's Guide to Road Racing.

Tim Noakes, author of the 930-page Lore of Running, agrees.

"I suggest you race an absolute maximum of two marathons per year, or one marathon and one ultramarathon," writes Noakes. "But it is better to race only one marathon or ultramarathon each year if you wish to be running competitively in 20 to 30 years. Ideally, there should be at least four, but preferably six, months between these races."

Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover also offer a clear warning in The Competitive Runner's Handbook: the Bestselling Guide to Running 5Ks through Marathons when it comes to revenge marathons.

"What's the best way to improve your marathon performance? Don't do what many runners attempt -- jump into the next marathon they can find to try to lower their time," the Glovers write. "Most marathoners shouldn' t race any distance for at least four weeks. Ideally another marathon shouldn't be considered for at least six months, preferably a year for first-timers. Some experienced marathoners may be able to run another marathon in three or four months."

"If you marathon too often and too close together, you increase risk of injury and decrease the changes for a good performance," write the Glovers.

Nearly all runners, including myself, have found out the hard way that your body will signal clearly when you push it too far: it breaks down and forces you to rest.

"If we don't take enough recovery time voluntarily, the body will find its own way to get all it needs," writes Henderson in Marathon Training.

To be sure, not everyone agrees on the marathon rules.

"Well, no such 'rule' [of running only one marathon a year] exists. And if one did exist, some running rules are meant to be broken -- as long as you are well-trained and know what you're doing," according to Hal Higdon, who has contributed to Runner's World for longer than any other writer.

"On several other occasions, I have run multiple marathons. I ran six marathons in six weeks to celebrate my 60th birthday and ran seven marathons in seven months to celebrate my 7[0th] birthday. In between, I ran ten during the space of one year so I could run my 100th marathon at the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996," writes Higdon, a 2:21:55 marathoner, in Marathon Training Guide - Multiple Marathons.

Dean Karnazes, serial marathoner and ultrarunner, writes, "Having once run 50 marathons, in 50 states, in 50 consecutive days, I’ve learned a few things about recovery. Chiefly, I think it’s overrated."

These were all the things that went through my mind in the last few weeks. The cautionary advice exists for good reason, and I needed to do some careful thinking about the risks and rewards of a revenge marathon.

I have done them before, the first time in 2007, when I ran the Gold Coast marathon three months after the Canberra marathon. Those were not super-close but closer than all the advice highlighted above: in Canberra I had run a big PB of 3:08 (improving my previous best of 3:13) and I went a lot slower at the Gold Coast in 3:15, which also marks my slowest marathon of the 14 I have run in the past eight years.

In 2009, however, I ran the North Olympic Discovery marathon five weeks after the Vancouver marathon, finishing in 3:10:39 and 3:10:19 respectively. And in 2011, I ran the Victoria marathon in a then-personal best time of 3:06:06 only two weeks after finishing the Bellingham Bay marathon in 3:09:40. (I ran a 50-mile ultra four weeks after Victoria but that had nothing to do with "revenge").

So I have some experience with revenge marathons. They have been good experiences, and each time I made sure to listen to my body, and -- most importantly -- stayed healthy. While they brought good results (and awards), they never brought me quite the time I had hoped to run.

This time around, one key consideration was that I had slowed down markedly in the second half of the Vancouver marathon: I had reached 24K in 1:43:01, a pace of 4:17 per kilometre, or 6:54 per mile. The remaining 18.95K I covered in 1:23:45, a pace of 4:36 per kilometre, or 7:24 per mile.

While this was not a voluntary easing of the pace and felt as hard as I could run then, I did not cover the second half at the top speed I had planned and have shown to be capable of. A slower overall pace relative to capability should, or could, theoretically mean a shorter recovery.

I also took another good look at my training diary: In the 17 weeks leading up to Vancouver (excluding the final pre-race taper week) I ran an average 61K per week. I had looked at that number and felt that, if anything, I was undertrained, rather than overtrained.

But my long runs had been long, with three 35Ks and one 39K. And some were close to each other, including one after a hard race effort. The weekend after the April Fool's half marathon I had run 18K on Saturday, followed by 35K on Sunday at an average of 5:02 per K, my slowest long run, about which I wrote in my training diary, "hard, hard work."

Was it possible that, despite my low weekly milage, I was a touch overtrained, too tired, because of my long runs? I will never know for sure but this possibility informed my running schedule since the Vancouver marathon, with the prospect to run another four weeks later -- less (running) was more.

Daily walks and two yoga sessions a week (for a total of six post marathon), with a couple of great deep tissue massages, have formed the cornerstone of my recovery. So far, (as of Thursday morning), I have done only four runs, the longest about 13K. And I feel good about that. I'll do at least one short training run before Sunday, possibly two.

Last night I finally felt confident enough to commit and registered for the Windermere marathon, held this Sunday. Triathlete Tim will be racing too, in the half marathon, which starts at the halfway point of the marathon. On paper the course looks great, though it is clearly not downhill all the way.  
It sounds beautiful too. "The first 7.2 miles of the marathon runs through Liberty Lake’s upscale neighborhoods, pass Pavillion Park and well-groomed golf courses before connecting to the Centennial Trail at the Harvard Road Trailhead.  The Centennial Trail follows the contours of the winding Spokane River and the views along the race route are a big part of the attraction of this race," according to the race website.

"The visible and audible Spokane River is usually flowing with white waters, thanks to the melting snows running off the nearby mountains. The exciting downhill Finish is in Downtown Spokane’s Howard Street Bridge in Riverfront Park."

Last but not least the race director, Elaine Koga-Kennelly, was not only encouraging, but also inspirational. "She has finished 101 marathons across the U.S.A. including Boston and Internationally (London, Paris, Great Wall of China, Victoria, BC) and also five Ultra-Marathons," I read in an article profiling her on the Spokane Metro Woman Blog. She now races in the 70-74 age group and I cannot wait to meet her.

As for my goal, I will begin at 6:51-per-mile pace, in other words aim for a 2:59 finish. The only way to find out if I can is to try. I am excited that I get to race another marathon, on a new course!

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