Race day arrived yesterday for my planned midway speed check marathon. The Waterford Viking Marathon was supposed to be my midpoint test to see how training was progressing for me. You may have heard me mention that I’ve been injured for over four weeks now (the grumbling, moany blogger). I didn’t really know how to feel yesterday morning when travelling to the start line. Mixed emotions, fear, and a healthy dollop of nonchalance combined into one mindset. The pressure was well and truly off but disappointment and concern took over.
There is always a touch of concern when heading to the start line on race day. Often it is doubting one’s own ability. Sometimes it’s perhaps knowing you’re not as fit as you should be or don’t have the training done. Other times, it’s concern about an injury that may not stay away until the race is over. When I was packing my bag yesterday morning, it’s fair to say that all 3 of the aforementioned were causing me concern.
It was over 4 weeks since I trained effectively. I struggled to maintain an average of 25 miles per week during that time. I ran most of the miles while yielding to my ankle injury and also in a reasonable amount of pain. Other attempts to maintain fitness such as using my bicycle attached to the turbo trainer, were token at best. Standing at the start line yesterday morning I both felt like a fraud and somebody who had never run a marathon before.
My primary concern was how my ankle would hold up. Beyond that, I was terrified to discover just where my cardio fitness had plummeted to. Last weekend I managed a 16-mile run, with pain, for a modest pace. How was I going to endure 26.2?
Disappointment weighed heavily on me in the last couple of weeks and on the morning of race day while I sat eating my overnight oats. Yeah, get over it, it’s just a run. I know; deep down I do know and it was something to be thankful for that I was even able to make it to the start line. Perspective is something I frequently miss but within the context of the year, it was something that I felt entitled to miss.
For the last few months, I have been knocking out pacing experiments as far as 22 miles, with up to 12 miles below goal pace for Dublin (<7:37/mile). Up until 4 weeks ago, there was a realistic chance that I could have started this race and attempted to break that dream 3:20 time. It wasn’t to be and no matter how strong-willed I could make myself, physically it just wasn’t going to happen.
race day goals
With so few miles to cover over the last number of weeks, I had plenty of time to think. I was never going to pull out of this race, no matter what. As such, I needed to think about how I could approach it best and if there was an outside chance to pull off a semi-decent time close to my current PB (3:32). I’ll be honest, that was not an easy strategy to work out. On one hand, I had an injury that would surface during the race, it was only a matter of inexact timing. On the other hand, my cardio fitness has suffered massively in the last four weeks. So, you see, this gives a double-edged problem with controls at either end.
My thoughts went a bit like this:
If I run fast to avoid being on my feet too long, my cardio fitness will be unable to sustain me. My heart rate will skyrocket and I will fold. If I run too slow, simply the number of steps I put my ankle through will bring forward the point when it causes too much pain to function properly. When the ankle gives up, it puts a strain on other parts of the leg too, making it so much harder to run.
After much deliberation, fingers in the air, and analysis of my recent long runs, I decided that 3:30 pace was my best option. Even if I couldn’t finish at that pace, it was a good bit slower than the experiment intervals I was running and that would give my cardio a chance. Also, it was not so slow to risk being on my feet for too long and having the injury kick in around mile 16 or so. Positive splits and an outside chance of registering a reasonable time.
I set off from the finish line, thinking about 8-min/mile pace. The first mile was faster than that but that’s first miles in races for you! After a few miles sub-8, things felt ok so I decided to maintain the pace and bank some time on the 3:30 pacers. Most of the splits up to halfway were sub-8 and at the halfway point I had unexpectedly banked about 3 mins on the pacers. I didn’t feel terribly uncomfortable either. Neither my breathing nor my ankle were exhibiting any signs of pressure.
I managed to sustain 8s or thereabouts with one exception of an 8:20 at mile 17 while trying to get some food in and running up a long drag. That’s how the first 19 miles panned out averaging 7:53/mile pace. Then mile 20 hit and the tendons announced their presence again. It was almost immediate. While the pain was mild to start, my stride changed instantly and the pace fell off a cliff. I wanted to keep pushing but I just couldn’t – it was over. I had actually convinced myself at mile 18 that 3:30 could happen. It was a cruel return to earth.
Shortly after that the 3:30 pacers caught and passed me. I was powerless to try and go with them. Five minutes later a rogue bee flew directly into my face and stung me on my lower lip. At this stage I was thinking what else could possibly go wrong? The silver lining is that I now know I’m not allergic to bee stings! A combination of crawling, jogging, and some sort of leg swinging behaviour dragged me across the finish line in a time of 3:38:29, precisely the same time I had run in Dublin last year.
I mentioned that cardio fitness was a big concern starting this race. It had to be after 4 weeks of little to no activity of any discernible quality. While I didn’t feel under too much stress until the ankle gave up, my data tells a very different story. Now that I’ve had time to look at the numbers and compare them to a similarly stressing task (my last 22-mile experiment) the contrast is stark.
The comparison above comes with a few notes. The data for the experiment was gathered with a chest strap whereas the Viking Marathon data was from the wrist and not as smooth. However, I have no reason to believe that the data is inaccurate. It doesn’t flat-line nor rapidly change for no reason. The average paces are only 15 seconds apart. However, the experiment was run at a far higher intensity for the sub-pace intervals. The comparison of time spent in each zone (see below) is even more damning. I was suffering – terribly so.
Looking at this data and knowing that this isn’t a 5km race… I don’t really know what to say. For anyone who thinks that cardio fitness doesn’t drop off rapidly when you are still “doing a bit”, these charts are for you. I knew it was going to be bad. I didn’t think it would paint a picture that I was lucky to reach the finish line. Splits for the race are below and feel free to check out the Garmin data too (nothing hidden).
This is the point where I’m probably expected to moan some more. However, while I could have seen myself do that a week ago, I really have nothing to moan about. I’m not going to be that guy that finished a marathon in a respectable time and moaned about it. The time I ran, officially 3:38:29 is precisely the time I ran in Dublin last year. That really gives me something to think about. While the wheels came off in Dublin and something went against me on the day, I certainly wasn’t off my feet for 4 weeks leading up to that race.
Today I am sore; I will need more time off as a result of my stubborn madness to have run this marathon. However, I now know that I ran this race to within 6 mins of my PB, while having an absolute nightmare of a month leading up to it. That gives me hope. There is unquestionably more there for an injury-free marathon to come. The answer to the question nobody should ask, “what happens when you run a marathon after 4 weeks off your feet?” would appear to be, “an acid test of the effort put in before that, measurable against smoother training efforts”. We go again!