Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Marathon Training

I've heard that during childbirth, hormones are produced by the mother that cause her to forget how painful the whole "pushing a person out of your privates" experience is. Without childbirth amnesia, the human race may have died out long ago.

I believe that something similar happens to marathon runners. I have no evidence other than the fact that, after training for our first marathon, most of us decide to do another one, to return for more punishment.

Case in point... me.

After 10 marathons, none of which have gone particularly well, I'm back for more abuse. I'm training for a bucket-list marathon, Big Sur.

Halfway point of Big Sur Marathon.
I know! Pretty awesome, right?

For those who've never done a marathon before, and even those who have but weren't really paying attention, marathoning really isn't about the 26.2 mile race at the end.

I know that some people run marathons and get nothing out of it than a T-shirt and a medal. If that is you, and you are ok with that, then feel free to stop here. I don't think you'll relate to what's to follow.

Those of you that are still reading understand that running a marathon is an opportunity to know yourself, and to challenge yourself. You're my kinda people,

For some of us, the race, that day way off in the future, is a carrot, an eagerly anticipated reward for all of the hard work put in recasting ourselves into marathoners. For others, it's an excuse, something to point to as rationale to all of the people who wonder why we are out on the road so much. It's a lot easier than trying to explain why you need to get away from people, or problems, or whatever, just for a little while each day. For still others, including me, the race looms as an ominous specter promising abuse and humiliation if we don't train hard enough.

No matter how you look at it, though, the race is just one day. Anyone can write a check, get up early, find their starting corral, and move forward when the gun goes off. They might even finish, but they'll hurt like a mother, and the only thing they'll have learned about themselves is that they can make very bad decisions.

The real challenge, and value, of the marathon isn't the race, it's the training.

Months of running, mostly alone, pushing yourself further and further, will wear down even the most fit. Day after day the training grinds on, and grinds you down.

And yet we return, over and over again. We tell people, and ourselves, we're doing it to "get it right" or to "just get under [insert goal time here]". Sometimes we play it off as an excuse to eat whatever we want.

Deep down, though, I think we are called back to find that place that week after week of long, hard training takes us, that state of mind where we are worn out, torn down to our base essence, ego and illusions stripped away, naked, real, raw. It's there that we see our true selves.

Many days we're sore, and tired, and fed up with the same stupid routes. No one has a gun to our head, but we know that if we skip, we'll be cheating ourselves. We push ourselves past where we are comfortable, past what is reasonable, past what our minds tell us is sane, to find out what we are capable of, and who we are.

If you're lucky and you run well, you'll find the most obvious and pronounced dose of that reality somewhere around mile 20 on race day. When your body screams "For the love of all that is good, STOP!", and you have the choice to surrender, or push on. Or maybe even push harder.

But you'll also face reality every time the alarm goes off early for a morning run, and every time you start a hard training run already sore from the day before, and every time you extend your long run a couple miles farther than you've gone so far, and every time you start a run in rain or cold or both, and every time you're faced with a choice of going to Five Guys with friends, or running over lunch and eating at your desk.

There are no shortcuts to becoming the best marathoner you can be. Every time you skip or cut short a workout you are selling yourself short, robbing yourself of the experience of finding out if you could have done it, finding out how tough you are, or how fast you are, or how much more you can take. Also, less importantly, but still important, when you skip a workout, you're adding minutes to your race time.

The real bitch about marathons is that how well your race goes is largely out of your control. Weather, sickness, injury, or a bad batch of Gatorade can ruin your day. The only thing you can control is your mental and physical fitness. And the only way to build those is to set your program, and stick to it. You gotta suck it up on the shitty days. You gotta run hard on hard days. You gotta pound out the miles on the long days.

You gotta go when you don't feel like it... when your mind is telling you not to... when your mind is telling you it's ok to slack off, or slow down, or walk. This is true in the race, and but also in training, because every workout is an opportunity to train your body and mind for the race. If you go easy on your body, it won't magically be strong and fast on race day. If you show your mind even the slightest hint of weakness during training, it will exploit that weakness on race day.

Marathon training is all about training your legs to run 20 miles, and training your heart to ignore your head and push the legs the final 6.2.

And so I'm one day, one run into training. I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm not sure how this is going to go. My body is a lot older, and creakier than it was the last time I tried this. But I think I'm tougher mentally now than I was then. I'm banking on that to make up the difference.

It's going to be a challenging few weeks, sprinkled with self-doubt, and discouragement, and opportunities to rationalize a reason to quit, not to mention the most brutal weather in Indiana. I know it will be worth it, but I also know it will be really hard. Still, I'm looking forward to what these weeks have in store for me.

The week of April 30th, the week after Big Sur, will be the week to rest, to look back at how far I've come, hopefully reflect on a fun race along the gorgeous California coastline, and to celebrate with good food. And then... well then it's best to have a couple beers, maybe a nice Napa Cab, and just let that amnesia kick in so I forget how much it hurt, and can start planning the next one.

Good running,

Image from here.