To me, the most remarkable thing about my marathon training is how it’s changed and evolved in the 15 years since my first 26.2-mile journey.
Technology has changed. Trends have changed. But, most notably, my tastes (and body) have changed.
My first race for a finisher’s medal was a relatively flat, unscenic course in an oceanfront city. What promised to be all coastline and smiles and turned out to be a slog past an endless cartoon scroll of strip malls and tire stores.
In spite of the live music promised at every mile marker, the run was more memorable sonically for my heavy breathing. My hard-striking tendencies made me to want to toss my already packed-out sneaks around mile 20 and duck into the Burger King for a shake and a an non-free-standing bathroom break at mile 22.
I gutted through the finish, recycled the kicks and vowed to never do a full again. I couldn’t walk for two weeks and the next time I would break into a full stride was about three months later when I forgot to set the ebrake on my car while parked uphill on California and Kearny in San Francisco.
Box checked, I was ready for my “next challenge” which never quite materialized into anything more than seeing how much pizza I could eat at Round Table buffet during work lunch and yelling at the radio during sportstalk-centric 120-minute one-way commutes around the Bay Area.
...Two years later, a few life changes forced me to run to the hills and I signed up for my first Big Sur full vowing my training would be more efficient and the run would be better.
Even though Big Sur is a road run, I had relocated to the Sierras and my outlook on running and training was becoming decidedly different. Because of snow December through March, road workouts in the lead up to Big Sur was a between-storm bluebird day luxury on a stretch of tarmac just east of the Truckee airport or reserved for low-land visits to San Francisco for a concert or supplies. Otherwise, winter sports took up the majority of my training time.
In the months leading up, I still tried to fit a long run (between nine and 15 miles) at least once a weekend even if it meant strapping tire-chain-looking grips on the soles of my shoes. I didn’t keep a training plan other than I tried to be outside at least three hours a day. Adopting a border collie pup ensured this. Between our early morning snowshoes and late evening skate skis with headlamp, my multi-purpose mileage piled up like a dirty snow berm on the roadside.
April came sooner than expected and besides a 12k from Sausalito across the Golden Gate in March (where I posted a personal best by three minutes) I had no idea how my body would transition from snow to sand; from skate ski amongst the Sugar pine to an oceanfront bump over Bixby Bridge.
The first half I tried to keep it around my hard-surface training pace of eight-minute miles. I bird-dogged a pleasant guy from Georgia who fell in love with the area driving Highway 1 ten years prior. Never a runner, he vowed to do Big Sur the spring following his visit because it was, “the only way I could just be on this stretch of highway and have the proper time to enjoy it.” He said the idea of another Big Sur run kept him on the road and trail by his house year-round and his times had improved each consecutive run.
“It’s one of my life’s great ironies,” he said. “Each year I train a little more and I get a little faster, so I get to enjoy the run I love so much...that much less.”
At about mile 14 I started to find myself ten paces ahead of my new buddy from the Deep South. I held up for him at a water stop where he told me I was negative splitting about 10 seconds a mile. “If you’re feeling good, go ahead—we’ll toast at the finish.”
And so, I cruised it in at 7:40 pace, way comfortable for me and not at all what I expected. My lungs were full of sea air and my legs were less sore than after a powder day. My joints ached for a handful of days after (asphalt is harder than snow, I reasoned) but everything else was ship shape. I took one day off to go see a couple friends/drink a couple beers in San Francisco, but by Tuesday morning I was back on dawn patrol with the doggie.
Since then, I’ve distilled what I learned that training cycle into five easy tricks to stay healthy and happy during marathon training.
Now, this is not me saying give up your traditional plan. If you’re a Hansons disciple, I’m not advising to stray from your game. If you need your Garmin or Fitbit to measure daily progress and remind you it’s time to lace up—more power to you.
But consider these five tricks as a little flavor kick—a little runners’ ranch dressing if you will:
- Move when you’re not training: Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, it’s not. I’ve trained ridiculously long hours for races when I’ve held sedentary jobs and I’ve relied on short/efficient workouts when I’ve worked freelance and been out running with the dog or taken a half day to enjoy freshies. Guess what worked out better? I appreciate that most of us are chained to some kind of desk/screen/spreadsheet combo, it’s unavoidable. But do what you have to to keep the body moving from your wrists up during those long days. A standing desk. Multiple walks around the building. Mid-day workouts. Being that guy who stretches during bathroom breaks. Bring small meals instead of one fat midday burrito bomb. You gotta keep it moving at all times to get desired results from your body. Otherwise, you’re the car sitting in the driveway that needs a jump to start.
- Listen not just to your body but to your passion: Sounds corny, but my best results have always come from mixing training with what I actually felt like doing that day. A four-hour backcountry ski adventure with buddies was always the equivalent if not superior to a 90-minute road workout with intervals. Plus the suds tasted better after. When I let myself do what I like and let my body tell me when it’s good and spent, I always seem to get the best results. Granted, not everyone lives next to a giant granite snow-capped peak or within a Katy Perry song’s drive to the beach, but you can modify this philosophy to your surrounds, your hobbies and your commitments. I’ve never been more tired than after a recent afternoon of shoveling out a section of dead grass in the backyard. Putting the Christmas decorations away and reorganizing the rubik’s cube of garage boxes for three hours left me with sore shoulders and tris the next morning. And running around after my son while he’s crawling the floor and screaming seems to be the best ab workout I’ve had in the last decade.
- Train with those a little faster/stronger than you: When my dog was a pup he could handle a 25-mile mountain bike ride, take a 20-minute cat nap in the car and be ready to do laps around the neighborhood as soon as we got home. He kept me going and going and pushing and pushing. My significant other at the time was a juniors’ ski coach and professional off-road triathlete, so while her workouts were more regimented and mine were more “fun” it always helped me to go try and stick on her wheel or get in a quick run workout together when schedules allowed. Rolling with the elites forced me to put the notion of training on the back burner and simply focus on trying to keep up. If you can, punch up when you’re choosing a training partner and someday you may surprise yourself as roles tend to reverse.
- Remember, you’re lucky to be there: Do you know you’re in the .0001 percent of the world population that runs not because it’s being chased and not because it’s starving—but because it’s got enough leisure time/money/desire to do so. And we get sake and sushi as a reward. Boo yeah! It’s good to be top of the food chain. Even though it’s all about privilege, too many times people become maniacal about their training plans and quit about halfway through. Why? Because it suddenly becomes a chore. In other words...
- It’s FUN!/have FUN!: At the beginning of every run I whisper to myself, “Best part of my day.” And it is. But that doesn’t mean it has to last forever. I’ve shrugged early on in 18-mile runs and only clocked seven. Two-hour workouts have been shrunk to 20 not-feeling-it minutes. Whether it’s an ache that I couldn’t run out or my mind just never got to that right state of yessssss, there are days it doesn’t work out as planned. For me, the minute it becomes not fun or something ceaselessly nags means I should go try something else for a bit. Once, I turned around just five minutes after getting on the trail and arrived home to find a cord of wood dropped in my driveway ready to split. It was a bitch and a much more brutal workout—not to mention the season’s first storm came that night, perfect timing. Because I followed my intuition, I came back with a good attitude and a refreshed spirit (not to mention sore back) the next day. And you know what, that day my 5k shorty into a two-and-a-half hour odyssey...and I loved every minute, especially the part where I got to come home to a toasty fire.
Always remember, there are no shortcuts to marathon training but there are healthy diversions—and sometimes, those make all the difference.