Friday, March 22, 2013

The Marathon Project

You could say that my beginnings in the world of running, were, well, a bit unusual. Most people start off with 5k and 10k races, and eventually work their way up to the marathon. Then, after they have conquered the marathon some decide to venture on even furthur by tackling ultramarathon distances ranging from 30 to over 100 miles. Per usual, I did not take that approach.

I began my running life with ultras. In a matter of one day, my longest run ever went from 6 miles to 50 miles. Okay, okay, it was more like 50 miles of jogging and walking, and mostly walking. The bottom line is that as my endurance for ultramarathons grew, I was only ever gaining endurance. I was never actually getting any faster. I learned to run steady 9-11 minute miles long before I had ever attempted to run anything fast. In other words, my approach to running was completely backwards.

As a sophomore in highschool, I ran a timed mile of 8:30 in gym class. Later that year, at age 15, I improved my mile time to a 7:30. Some of my cross country friends were already regularly running 5k's in the 17-18 minute range, but for me it was the first time I had ever run a sub 8 minute mile. Then, during my senior year I decided to sign up for the indoor track team in order to get in shape for spring sports. After several months on the "B" squad, I notched personal best of 1:03 for the 400m dash, 26 seconds for the 200m dash, and 7.0 for 55m. All in all, the statistics were fairly pedestrian given that the top 400m runner in our school could run it in 48 seconds. Just after track ended, I decided to once again run a timed mile, and clocked a personal best 6:27. My first ever sub 7 minute mile. Pretty darn fast for me, but the reality was it was almost a minute slower than my buddy, who ran a 5:38 in the district track meet....and he finished nearly dead last.

Since my 6:27 mile in 1999, I have virtually stayed away from faster running efforts in order to enjoy the slower pace of ultras. Ultras, for a long time, seemed to promote the tortoise vs the hare mentality. I could comfortably run my 10 minute miles and almost be viewed as one of the "faster" runners. However, this is far from the case anymore, as faster marathoners with last names like Canaday, King, Wardian, Riddle, Bitter, Braje, etc. are crossing over and averaging 6 minute miles for 50 miles. I'm even seeing a huge increase in the number of guys and gals who are running 50k's at my 5k pace. While I will always consider myself a middle of the pack hobby runner, and yes running has always just been a hobby, I still desire to prove to myself that I have room for improvement. That's when I realized the harsh reality that my insecurity for trying to run faster, was the one thing really holding back my progress.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE mountain and forest trails more than any other running surface. I love being outside, and being with nature, but my competitive side acknowledges that my lack of road running is why only my endurance has improved, and not my speed. I also think that's why my 100 mile times have improved, but I haven't PR'ed anything 50 miles, or less in a few years. In being honest with myself, I have sometimes used ultras as a safety blanket, or excuse for why I don't dare run on roads. Afterall, I am humbled, almost embarassingly so, that some people in the local ultra community view me as a "front of the pack" runner. This is no doubt a result of having had some brief success at very small, low key, local ultra events with non competitive fields. However, put me in a local 5k, Boston Marathon, or Western States, and you'll see I'm just another average runner. There are middle schoolers who would crush me in a 5k, and I need to realize that it is perfectly ok.

In 2008, I ran my first timed mile since highschool on a cold and windy winter afternoon. At the time, my running "resume" included a 22:47 100 mile finish, a 9:31 50 mile finish, and a host of other ultra finishes. However, after four laps around the local track I paused my watch and was humbled at reading the time. 6:55. Fear realized, I was not fast. One year later, after a few months of track workouts, I attempted the timed mile once more. Once again, after four hard laps I hit the pause button on my watch. Surely it was going to say something like 5:50, maybe even 5:40ish. Not even close.....a 6:16. All that speed work, and it was a lousy 11 second PR over my best mile from freaking highschool. Uggghhh!

I know now that I must let go of my insecurity with speed, and just wrap my mind around improving. Road running is a whole new beast, and strangely I am looking forward to embracing the challenge that comes with it. Road running is a different mind set, even a different sub culture, but is no less awkward than how ultras felt in the beginning. Along with overcoming my fear of appearing slow, I must also overcome the idea of actually running a marathon at full effort. I have only ever run marathons for fun, or as a pacer, because deep down I knew running one at max effort would probably hurt more, in a different way, than any ultra I have ever done.

Now that I finally have my eyes set on a fall marathon, I am trying to establish a flexible goal for a finish time. I serisously have no idea what a realistic goal time would be. My Boston Qualifier is a sub 3:05, but I honestly don't think that's in my reach at the moment. In 2008-2009, I probably did the most road running of my life due to being a part of the Reston Runners. In that time I ran the Marine Corps Marathon casually in a Halloween costume and just barely finished under 3:30 (3:29:45 to be exact). I often look back and think that was probably my best opportunity, from a speed standpoint, to qualify for Boston, but I chose to have fun instead. The next year, in 2009, I ran the very cold innaugural Three Bridges Marathon after completing two 50k's and two 50 milers in the six week prior to the race. I ran feeling banged up from the previous races and survived for a 3:33 finish time, and yet it was now my second fastest marathon. Since then, I have only ever paced people in marathons, all ranging from 4:00 to 4:44 times. Mental game score; marathons 1, Mike-0

Last weekend, after an injury filled winter, and two very quick race DNF's, I chose to run the local Instant Classic trail marathon. Like always, I decided last second to run it, though not knowing if my foot was even remotely better from my Graveyard 100 DNF(a stress fracture scare). If anything, I just wanted to finish a darn race and finally gauge a starting point for the rest of the year's running objectives. I can't say the day started off the best. My alarm did NOT go off at 5am, but instead I frantically awoke at 6:45am for a 7:45am race. I had no time to eat the big breakfast I had planned, so I opted to eat two of the five gels I packed for during the race. Not the "breakfast" I had hoped for, but better than nothing. The race itself was actually very enjoyable. The trails were a little muddy due to the chilly rain, and the course was relentlessly hilly, though pretty flat in comparison to the usual trail ultra. The only real glitches of the day were my severe bonk from about mile 21 to the finish and running a couple extra minutes after missing a turn. I know, I know, Mike missed a turn. In other news fire is hot. Several runners missed the same one, so I don't feel too bad. In a weird way, I'm glad my lost time was due to the impending bonk, and missed turn, and not lack of fitness. I'm 100% certain if I had eaten a normal breakfast and had the two extra gels saved for later in the race, I would have run the last six miles about 5-6 minutes faster. Anyway, I finished in 3:44, and very realistically believe I could have been closer to 3:36 sans bonk and missed turn.

So, I would say the state of my fitness going into the next six months of mixed preparation for a fall marathon, is that I am roughly a 3:36 marathoner on hilly, but groomed single track and forest trails. Obviously trails run a bit slower than roads, but I really don't know by how much. The consensus for this 3rd year event is that people are saying that they ran 10-20 minutes slower than their usual road marathon times. I guess depending on your hill running ability, or trail running, the range could be very different for folks. With ZERO speed work in over the past year, I'd say I'm pleasantly surprised with where things are. Does this mean six months from now I will be capable of something faster? I really don't know, and that's sort of the fun thing about it. Im clueless when it comes to road running. I will still be running ultras between now and then, and I need to stay healthy and need to stay motivated. But, we all know life can change month to month and year by year. If it comes down to brass tacks, just finishing will be the name of the game.