Monday, February 3, 2014

A Long Way to Boston: The Need for Speed


8 minutes and 30 seconds. I was out of breath, but felt accomplished. I was 15 years old and just ran the fastest mile I had ever run. Sure, there were kids in my gym class who could run it in six minutes, and some even faster, but it was a big jump from the 9 and 10 minute miles I had run all through middle school. After all, I wasn't a runner, so it was good enough for me.

17 years later.

After completing 9 marathons and 81 ultras, I have acknowledged that road running has always been my weakness. I suppose it largely has to do with my lack of enjoying road running, but also because of how much slower I have been compared to others. By nature and personality, I am more aligned with the laid back nature of trail running. I love just going with the flow, relaxing, enjoying the views, and being able to seamlessly click off 15, 20, 25 mile runs through the mountains. However, over the years, with all my trail running, my body has adapted to the more lumbering pace of going up and down mountains and hills. While my cardio has benefited from this, the muscle conditioning and turnover needed to run faster on roads never really developed. Odd as it sounds, it became easier for me to run 50 miles at a nine minute pace, than five miles at a seven minute pace, though you'd assume the speed would pick up drastically at "shorter" distances. Nope, never happened, and I can partially attribute this to the fact I started off running long slow ultras and not with road races like many people.

What about qualifying for Boston? This is a question I ask myself more than you'd think. As a trail runner, I sort of feign disinterest, but in reality I'd love to qualify as much as anyone else. Many people assume, because of my ultrarunning PR's, that surely I could qualify for Boston. Nope. I think my best chance at qualifying for Boston was probably back in 2008, or 2009 when I was doing a lot of road running in Northern Virginia. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in a costume hung over, and still ran a 3:29. And as I recall, ten of those miles were spent running with folks at about a 8:45 minute pace, meaning I could have maybe run closer to a 3:25. In retrospect, I may have had a chance at running a 3:20ish time if I had taken the race seriously, but that would still have been way off the 3:10 qualifying standards of 2008.

It's been frustrating to say the least. I have studied and implemented marathon training routines, done the speed work (sometimes for 3-4 months), saw little progress, and then jumped back into the trail ultras which I found more gratifying (and less disappointing). I've done a handful of road races in the past few years, and a couple trail marathons just to test the waters to see how far from Boston I am. The results have always been the same. I'd struggle to run seven minute miles for a 10k here, run a 3:44 trail marathon there, and run a 1:37 half marathon somewhere else. It certainly didn't help when the Boston qualifying standard for my age group dropped down to a 3:05. Friends of mine that I knew were much faster were barely qualifying. I mean, geeze, I'd have to average a 7:05 pace for 26.2 miles. That is 1:25 faster than the fastest mile I ran in high school, and a faster pace than anything I could muster for 10k as an adult. Putting it all into perspective can really suck. As of the end 2013, my half marathon PR was a 1:37 (formerly a 1:42 from 2009), but even that projected out to a 3:14 marathon and I knew there was no way I could maintain the same pace for another 13.1 miles. Again, it seemed I was more realistically a 3:25 to 3:20 marathoner, and still a long, long, way from Boston.

February 2014. I've been patient over the past three months, and spending more time with focused workouts, and not just mindlessly running all the time. I suppose working full-time again has caused me to re-evaluate my routine and forced me to be more efficient. I admittedly had too much free time much of the past six months and found myself just kinda running to fill the time, and often finding my pace drifting slower and slower. While in Colorado, it was beautiful and amazing, but most of my mileage came from hiking. Not the best combination for improving speed, though it sure was incredible. Thankfully, the physical perks of living at high altitude carried over to my move back East, and I made sure not to squander any cardiovascular gains from living at 5,000 feet all summer and fall. That's when I decided to step up to the challenge of running roads again and signed up for my first road run since 2012. It was a local 15 miler, with no prior speed training, no taper, no planning. I just saw it as a good race to assess my current fitness, or lack thereof.

Short "race" report. As stated, no taper, and though the legs were not tired, they were not 100% fresh either. 15 miles is also a weird distance to pace, but I figured to maybe keep it within half marathon pace range. I based my goal time of 1:52 off my pace from my 1:37 half marathon in November. Mile one was weird. The pace felt fairly comfortable, not easy, but also not tough. When we passed the first mile marker I expected to see a time of maybe 7:20-7:25, but was surprised to see 7:01. The next few miles the paced slowed to 7:05, 7:08, 7:10, but I was running with a group, and was just maintaining their pace. A few more miles went by, a few people dropped off the group, and we neared the turn around. The lead guys were all running sub six minute pace, which was pretty cool to watch. I hit the 7.5 mile turn around in 54 minutes exactly, already two minutes ahead of schedule. The small cluster of runners I had been running with all dropped back (I didn't realize that they didn't slow down, but I sped up). Instead of freaking out that I went out too fast I just kept running within my zone. The next six miles were all under seven minutes, which meant that I was going to negative split the course by a lot and crush my 1:37 half marathon PR. I crossed 13.1 miles in 1:32:24 for the new PR, but cramped and slogged through the last mile in 7:23. Overall, it was a pleasant surprise, and nearly six minutes faster than planned. I expected to slow down a ton the second half, but actually negative split the course by 1:30. Another positive thing was that even when my legs felt tired and heavy the final 5 miles, I was still running low 7:00's pace, though I would have assumed low 8:00's based on feel. This run, I believe, also sparks another kind of discussion. Most of my miles, as much 90%, are in the 8:30-10:00 pace range (trails and roads), with the remaining 10% not being much faster than 8:00 pace. Even on treadmills running a few miles above 8.0 mph seems so much tougher, especially when I consider I just ran 15 miles at a speed of almost 8.5 mph. I always thought treadmills were supposed to be easier, but maybe the logic about external stimulus affecting perceived effort makes sense in his regard.

The reality check: My pace for 15 miles was exactly the pace I need to qualify for Boston....just 11.2 miles short. I think tapered and rested, I could have maintained the same pace for 18, maybe 19 miles. However, I know I'm not where I need to be to close out that last 7-8 miles. That will take some dedication to longer fast runs like the 15 miler, and perhaps a little less time on trails. I'm not naive about this. Many of my friends who run in the 3:00-3:05 marathon range have half marathon PR's around 1:25, which is significantly lower than mine. Cutting 30 seconds per mile off a half marathon is a monumental task. It's too bad, because I may have had a good shot at the old 3:10 standard, but the reality is even a lot of guys who qualify at 3:05 aren't getting in. Right now a 3:03 will get you in the race, but it may eventually be sub three hours. Kinda sucks when you get faster, and the standards gets faster at the same time. Until then, or I get bumped up an age group, Boston will have to wait.

1 comment:

William Read said...

Hi Mike. That sounds very encouraging really. Seems like you are breaking through a performance plateau. Here is something to amuse you. I have been a runner for 40+ years and Although I have run marathons, the last being in 1986 (never got over that) I have wondered if I could do an ultra? Well here is what is happening to me. There's this rather steep trail run from my house that is six miles long with about 2000 feet of climbing up and 2000 coming down. It took me an hour and a half to "run" this which works out to about 15 minute per miles or a 25 hour 100 miles run assuming I could hold that pace. I guess if this is any indication the answer to the can I run an ultra question is nope but I like to still think about it.