How I accidentally set a marathon PB and qualified for Boston with a negative split


I don’t write race recaps, mainly because something goes so drastically wrong in each race I run that I can’t wait to move past it and get on to the next one. After a disaster at GoodLife in Toronto this year, I registered for the Erie Marathon the next day. Two weeks before Erie I registered for Philadelphia, mainly so I wouldn’t be able to dwell on the disappointment of another race gone wrong.

But I had a good race at the Philadelphia Marathon this year, and a fellow BRC member asked me to write a few words about what happened.  So here are some lessons I learned from somehow managing to run a negative split, a personal best and an almost-5 minute Boston qualifier on a day when a lot of people had a rough time on the course.

Training

By using the 2015 GoodLife Marathon as a training run for Ottawa, I learned that I can run a marathon with little discomfort if I don’t mind running slowly and having a pedestrian (for me) finishing time. I also learned that I’m not at all satisfied with doing that. In the last 18 months, I’ve learned there is no substitute for hard, out-of-your-comfort-zone training. It started with trying to keep up with the Lower East Siders on Wednesday morning interval workouts, and continued with Rob Watson giving me a training plan that challenged me to do things I thought were impossible. The idea, in January, of doing 12×1 KMs (with the last one faster than the first) seemed insane. But on Sunday, I needed the experience of almost every workout, from the not-so-easy “easy” runs I did with Nir, Jane, Geoff and Dave on Thursday mornings, to the half-marathon pace long runs we ran in October.  It was because of that training that a year after running a PB at 5:00/km pace, I was able to go out Sunday and think of 5:00 as slow, 4:30 as fast, and 4:45 as “average.” I can’t overstate the importance of running faster to get faster, and I’m so grateful to those four for letting me tag along and driving me to keep improving, and joining me to push me on hard workouts.

Fitness

I used to just run, and I used to get hurt. For my birthday this year, Nir and Julie bought me a shirt and started “Project Andrew,” a weekly workout to help my core and cut down on the hip and groin problems I was having. It gave me a weekly break from running, and strengthened my core enough that I made it through two marathons without back or hip pain for the first time ever. This winter, I resolve to get to the gym more; I’ve seen how much it helps.

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Focus

One lesson I learned throughout all my training is the focus doesn’t always have to be there, as long as you get the work done. In a talk I gave to a Running Room clinic last year about mental toughness, I mentioned how I quit 6 times every race; I let myself quit as many times as I want, as long as my legs don’t stop moving. The same applies to workouts; I hardly ever skipped a workout just because I was sore or didn’t feel like it or the weather was bad.

That paid off on Sunday. Really, all fall, my heart wasn’t in it. I told everyone who would listen that I was tired. My calves were still sore after cramping in Erie, I didn’t have the mental fortitude to stick to my workout plan, and I ate more of the kids’ Halloween candy than I should have. Mentally I just couldn’t zero in anymore. When I stepped on the starting line on Sunday, I was mentally prepared to finish in 3:45 – or more. A BQ (sub-3:25) was the farthest thing from my mind.

But once the race started, I was committed. I wasn’t worried about focusing; I just did the work, ran a bit to get up to a comfortable pace, and tried not to let the race get away from me while I was settling in. Basically, like in so many other workouts, I trusted that once I started doing the work, I’d feel like doing the work. And it worked.

Take it easy on yourself

Erie went OK, and I got my first BQ, but not by enough to get into Boston. I knew it when I crossed the finish line, my travelling team knew it too, and we all sort of pretended it wasn’t true until I got the rejection notice.  So I didn’t dwell on it.

Because of the aforementioned fatigue, when Nir, Geoff and Jane talked about me going after another BQ in Philadelphia, I smiled, but it felt impossible. And the weather forecast made it even more unlikely.

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So instead we had fun. When Saturday’s shakeout took an extra KM because I thought some random train station was the Art Museum, I didn’t care.

 

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Instead of resting in the afternoon, I walked 14 blocks to buy my son a box of magnets. When we went out for dinner on Friday, instead of the generic pasta with tomato sauce, I had linguini with clams, how my mom used to like it.

The point is, I knew I ran a lot this year – over 3500 KMs, more than 25% more than I ever had in a year before. I ran almost 300 times, mostly with friends. We had a lot of sweat, and a lot of coffee. To let my definition of success or failure hinge on one race wouldn’t be fair to the sheer amount of fun and pride I got out of the work this year; whether I could do it that day had no bearing on whether I had improved over the last 12 months.

Practice

We practice so we can make some things easier. But we also practice so when things go wrong, we’re prepared. On Sunday, a lot of things went wrong, but because of practice, I was somewhat prepared to deal with each of them.

The morning coffee-bagel routine failed and I couldn’t go to the bathroom. The start area felt disorienting to me, like I’d never been at the start of a race or something. The weather report foretold of epic gusts of wind, essentially reaffirming that it wasn’t meant to be. Because of the wind, there wasn’t even a start line that we could see; they’d removed the scaffolding to keep it from crashing on someone’s head. It felt more like a local 5k than a big city marathon.

Thankfully, I ran in a lot of conditions this year. The Canada Day 5K was rainy and ran through sand. The GoodLife Marathon in May went through a lot of cold, wind and rain. Erie was sparsely-populated in a strange area I didn’t know anything about. Thanks to my training volume, I even had a few tempo or interval workouts on the way home from work that were interrupted by potty breaks. And I ran more than ever without music, at speeds higher than I was comfortable with, to be conversational with my much-faster training partners.

So when I had to stop to go to the bathroom mid-race, I didn’t panic (unlike last time, when this happened):

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Then my iPod stopped.

I don’t even like doing easy runs or intervals without music. I spend weeks on my race day playlist. I hone it, add songs, try them out on long runs, cut them if they don’t work.

So panic set in. I wondered, if I quit right there, should I walk forwards to the next water stop for help, or back to the one behind me? I decided from now on I bring 2 iPods, in case one dies. Or maybe three. I wondered if I should throw the iPod away to keep it from weighing me down like the sky weighing down Atlas for eternity.  And then MMMMBop got stuck in my head again for a few minutes, and Rob Garofalo will pay dearly for that.

But I’d practiced without music, so I decided I could survive. I listened to my feet. I listened to other runners. And when I realized they were breathing heavier than me (which NEVER happens), it gave me a lift.

Belief

I wrote a column three years ago that talked in deference about BRC members who run Boston. Two years ago I decided to try to get “faster.” A year ago I took aim at a Boston qualifying time. There was one constant throughout that time; I could never accomplish my goal until I believed I could. I tried for a BQ in May, but I didn’t have the confidence I could do it, and my race fell apart. In September in Erie, I believed I could reach 3:25, but I’m not sure I believed I could go much faster. I ran 3:24:53.

In Philadelphia, I had doubts about my physical ability to hold up, but mentally I knew I had improved in the past 10 weeks. So when the opportunity presented itself to excel, I believed it.

That opportunity came at the halfway point. It’s a common refrain for marathoners; you pass the midway point and think “I have to do that AGAIN?”

Fifteen times in the past, when presented with that prospect, the answer has always been “NOPE.”

But on Sunday I asked myself, “can you do that again?” And my answer, surprisingly, was “I think so. I think we’re good here.” And that was my “wall,” right there.

It continued at 28k. At that point in Erie, I passed Nir and yelled “I’m barely hanging on!” As I ran under the Falls Bridge in Philadelphia, into a strong headwind, I asked myself: “are you barely hanging on?” The honest answer was “no,” and that’s when I realized that despite the iPod and bathroom and starting line and wind and cold and MMMBop,  I was actually having the best race of my life.

Pacing

After the bathroom stop, when I realized I hadn’t lost much time, I tried to focus on my pacing. The difference this time was that I allowed myself a lot of slack. In the past I’ve been too stringent on exact paces; at GoodLife I was aiming at 4:43/KM, couldn’t get higher than 4:44 and decided it was going to be an awful day. In Philadelphia, I set a scale in my mind (unconsciously; this is just how my mood seemed to go):

Under 4:30 – “slow down, you’re not that fast”

4:30-4:35 – “too fast unless it’s downhill”

4:35-4:45  – “if it feels good, do it”

4:45-4:52 – “sure, if that’s really all you have”

4:53 – 5:00 – “are you bonking? No? Then stop being lazy”

For the race, my average pace ended up being 4:42. For the paces above, here’s the breakdown in KMs:

Under 4:30 – 3

4:30-4:35 – 3

4:35-4:45  – 27

4:45-4:52 – 6

4:53 – 5:00 – 3

That’s a good pacing day, as far as I can tell.

 

Try new things

We’re often told not to try new things on race day. And yeah, don’t buy shoes at the expo and run a marathon in them the next day (a half is fine). But we can work ourselves into knots worrying about whether everything is perfect and exactly like we’ve practiced. I ran in shorts despite windchill about 5 degrees colder than I liked. I had never run 24K without music, until Sunday. When I was down to one vanilla gel and didn’t want it, I took the on-course berry gel instead. In a marathon, it’s just as important to be mentally comfortable, and if that means trying something new to solve a problem, go for it.

Mantras

We expected a tailwind from 33k on, after the turnaround in Manayunk. The wind was from the West, the last 9k were heading east.

That didn’t happen. There was no tailwind. The same swirling mess we had on the way out greeted us on the way back. We knew the gusts were due to pick up at 10 a.m., and they did. But my legs weren’t dead yet, so I thought about other things.

I thought about the talks I’d given to clinics about mental toughness and pacing, and how it was time to put my money where my mouth was. In my pacing talk this year I told the group to find a mantra or two to repeat and refocus the mind. So I found some myself.

I thought about this guy:

id-keep-playing

I thought about Eddie Aikau, whose biography I’d watched the night before. Eddie was a famous Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer who died trying to rescue the crew of a voyaging canoe. His life inspired the motto “Eddie Would Go,” synonymous with accepting any challenge. So I chanted “Eddie Would Go” silently as I ran.

I thought about my family and how much they’ve put up with to let me train for this. I remembered that on Thursday night when I put my daughter to bed, I had read her “Oh The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. I thought about how so many of my previous races at this point were like the slumps and the darked windows and the Waiting Place…and that today wasn’t one of those days.

And so, for 4K into the wind, over and over, I chanted my favourite part of the book, sometimes quietly, sometimes out loud:

“KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!”

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Don’t get cocky

As the saying goes, the marathon starts at 32k. Nobody says “I was having an awful race but really rescued it at the end.” In Erie, I lost my entire race in that last 10k. So on Sunday, even as everything felt relatively fine, I used the runners around me as a cautionary tale.  Each runner who was stretching out a calf or massaging a hip was a signal to stay within myself, to focus on each kilometer, and to hit my pace while I still could, before something really started to hurt. I used my mantras and my race experience and my muscle memory, and my practice and my belief in myself.

The finish

I’d like to pretend there’s some big climactic scene, but the reality is, at 40K, I knew the result. I wasn’t going to speed up significantly to change my time, but I also wasn’t going to slow down much. I wasn’t really thinking about the time, because I hadn’t thought much about it all day. For the first time in my life, I just enjoyed the last stretch. I gave a pep talk to a guy who was struggling (“If I’d told you this morning you were going to be on pace for 3:20 with a mile to go, would you have complained or charged up that hill?” He charged.) I thanked the cops near the finish line for keeping us safe. And I tried to appreciate the fact that this would probably never happen to me again.

Negative Split

A negative split is the holy grail of marathoning. Everyone talks about it; hardly anybody does it. And yet, when I break down how I was able to accomplish it on Sunday, it’s pretty simple:

  • I trained for long runs faster than my goal pace
  • I ran at a slower pace than I’d trained for my long runs

It’s a theory Adaptive Running Academy coach Stan Ong introduced to my running partner Jane. We were skeptical, and I was tired, but in the last four weeks of training I had no choice but to run as hard as I could to keep up with a group that was running at that pace (they all finished 10-16 minutes head of me in Philadelphia).  By running a half-marathon 5 weeks out at 4:32, and regularly running long runs with long stretches at 4:35, I tricked my body into thinking 4:42 was easy. And it worked; not only did I set a PB by 4:45 with a negative split, but I was less sore afterwards than I’ve ever been. No fear of stairs, no handrails, no limping.

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So there it is. Hopefully there’s some stuff in here others can use; if not, hopefully it was somewhat entertaining.

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