Thursday, August 03, 2006

Last Long Run

Well, there you go then. With zero fanfare, the last long run is over. 16.15 miles yesterday. I was scheduled for 15, but that additional mile seemed somehow important. It went exceedingly well. I am officially dialing in, my friends. I am abandoning ghost after ghost. Nutritional issues, pacing issues, heat issues, strength issues - all are coming together, in all disciplines, and I can actually feel myself tuning up. Refining. Sharpening. This kicks ass.

The data - I approached the run precisely how I hope to approach the marathon - stupid easy the first 15 miles. Somewhere between a 10:00 and 10:30 pace - broad like that so I have latitude to see how I'm feeling and shift if I want to. Not out to impress anybody, but wanting always to be running. All these miles, they're just a warmup. I'm trying to have the discipline to treat them that way, so I have juice in the tank come mile 15. I'm not training this damn hard and long only to walk the friggin' marathon.

Unlike the last time I ran 15 miles (and granted the heat was a greater issue that day - but it was still pretty damn hot on the asphalt last night until it cooled down some), where I really struggled the last 3 miles even at such an "easy" pace, I found myself having to really hold back the reins the last 3 miles. I was consistently wanting to run faster than my alloted pace. Good news: the horses were ready to race, even after 12 miles or so.

There is, in any point in a long distance run, this surreal moment, this instant, where it hurts. Where before that instant you're thinking "Huh. Not so bad at all." And after that moment, your body begins a revolt. Your muscles begin to scream at you, and the engine room starts sending all kinds of Code Red shit to the mind and body. It's not generally any one thing, and it's not injury or anything - just...everything hurts. Your legs feel thick. You can start to literally feel the strands of your muscles as they each fatigue. You stop having a sense for intentionally putting one leg in front of the other; you've been doing it so long today that the response is automatic. When you see people at races with that grimace on their face, or when they're shuffling along, they've reached that threshold. It's why saying things like "You're almost there!" to a runner at mile 20 of a marathon gets no mileage - because you're not almost there. You're not even close. 6 miles is a friggin' eternity away. I think in order to do more than just survive the marathon, you have to become acquainted with this threshold. Set up shop. Move right in. So that it doesn't freak you out. So that you're not surprised.

For me it seems to be right around mile 14. That's about where I experienced it at the Twin Cities marathon last fall, and in my long runs. Before that, I reach the artificial milestone of the half-marathon feeling pretty good, and the mind dumbly says "wheeeee! Halfway there! This is easy breezy!" Then suddenly in 5 strides you're doing battle. That's why I decided to tack on that extra mile yesterday. At mile 14 my legs began their revolt, and it's there that you have to pull it out of you. It's there that your body will not be bullshitted. You either have what it takes to keep going, or you do not, and your body is uninterested in your simple prodding and pushing. Step one is the fitness - are you physically capable of it? If you are, then on to the greater battle with the mind. You have to have a reason - something deep down in your heart, in your gut, to go that next quarter mile. Half mile. Then finally mile. Then do it again. It's why it's said that the first 140 miles of an Ironman are run with your body. The last six are run with your heart.

So at mile 14 the revolt begins. It becomes more difficult to maintain the same pace. Your energy output feels like you should be running much faster, but you check your watch and you're going the same pace you were earlier, when it was easy like 2nd grade. There's no crises - that kind of pain is much, much different; nutritional, injury, etc, and does require the smart runner to stop, and right now. I've been there too, and that's a whole different thing. No, this kind comes when you're doing everything right, believe it or not. So I decided in the middle of mile 14 that we were going to get through to mile 15, as planned, and then crank this up a bit. Mind over body. Just as planned at Ironman. Nothing absurd - no sudden two-minute-faster pace. Just a shade more. To teach the body that it can, in fact, do it. To shut the engine room up. And for the mind to learn all about this pain. For me it likes to start in my upper hamstrings and move its way down to my calves. So I memorized it. Every pulsing, pushing shred of it. How my legs felt like granite (Iron) with each footfall. How I knew that if, for some reason, I stopped running right now "just to walk for a minute", that that would be it - I'd struggle with a dead man's shuffle the rest of the way home. It becomes surreal and ethereal. You're doped up on endorphins and adrenaline and lactate. You reach this weird place of a sort of meditative zen. You find yourself concentrating on everything, totally in tune with your body, no time or energy anymore to look around, or wave at the passers-by. You even pray the light turns green by the time you get there because stopping is not an option. There becomes nothing but the run.

And once comfortably numb then, I sped up. It's a mind trick. Your body shrieks that it can't go any faster. So you tell your body hush now, s'okay, of course we're not going to go any faster. But if you can get just a single kick, just a tiny push, it'll acclimate to your new, faster pace without knowing it. Without exaggerating its fatigue. Now you're overcoming the threshold. Breaking through the famed wall, as it were - because a wall is really what it is. You can't be foolish here - an all out sprint isn't in the cards, and push even a bit too hard and you will inevitably crumble. It's a razor's edge now, this. If you find the sweet spot, you'll maintain a higher pace. Stay under too far, and you'll start to slow more and more. Go over and you'll be done within a mile. Small steps. Only a bit faster. It has to be sustainable. Just a tiny increase. But that tiny increase can bear some momentum, and pretty soon you're regaining some kind of control over the revolt.

15 miles at 10:07 pace.
1.15 miles at 9:27 pace.

Of course I'm not done running - by no means. I'm not tapering or downshifting or anything like that yet. But the next time I run that far; when I see 16.16 miles tick by on my watch, it'll be - Godwilling - in the early evening in Madison.

No drama. No blisters, no strained calves, no wow-that-hurts chafing. Ironman uniform battle tested - check. Drinking every 12 minutes - check. Gel every 40-50 minutes - check. And that's that. Final deposit into the Ironman running account - check.


Sara F. said...


Pharmie said...

Way to push it through! My hardest mile usually seems to be around mile 16. It's where my body really starts to hurt, and I know I have 10 friggin' miles left. Once I get to 20, I know I'm getting closer. Of course all of my marathons have been run on the same course. My daily running course is the home stretch. We'll see how it pans out at IMMOO.