“Moderation in all things—especially moderation!”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tapering is brutal. I know I need rest. My legs need rest. They have been abused and battered for fourteen weeks of intense marathon training, not to mention the fact that the two months prior to starting training I averaged 184 miles per. All the same, it’s summer at last, my time is finally my own, and to have days without runs in them make me squirmy and anxious. Not as if I don’t have anything to do with my time, of course; preparing to teach nine new classes should take two people the better part of a year, and I’m hoping to do it more or less solo over the course of a couple months. Already in June, the amount of time I spend writing each day has gone up about 50%, and I anticipate that number to continue to climb steadily throughout the course of what promises to be a busy but productive summer.
By the time I headed out for my seven-mile hill workout on Tuesday morning, I had already taken the kids to daycare, downed my second French press of black Sumatra dark roast, and worked on my book for a couple of hours. I laced up my Nimbus Lite 3’s and headed for the hilliest parts of my usual routes, running figure eights that led me up and down the largest hills in Hanscom Park as well as on the Field Club Trail. Seven miles quickly turned into ten, as I struggled to pry myself away from the therapy of my sport. Back home, I swapped texts with my friend Brian, who paced with me for years, about pacing a few races this fall together and possibly running a marathon, and my friend Scott, a football-player-turned-body-builder-turned-ultra-runner friend, about possibly doing the I-29 Challenge (back-to-back marathons in KC and Des Moines) together this fall. He seemed intrigued.
I’ve always struggled with self-restraint. Don’t look at me like that. Long distance runners are zealots by nature. If your default personality isn’t all-or-nothing then neighborhood fun runs are probably more your speed, and that’s totally cool. Those of us who run not a half marathon but many, not a marathon but as many as we can, are clearly not great at recognizing our own limitations—or admitting that we have them at all, for that matter. This can be a real benefit in some instances, a real curse in others. People who don’t know their own limits, or who aren’t good at self-regulation, should probably avoid things like fast cars, casinos, all-you-can-eat buffets, and distilleries. And while I am definitely working on learning to pace myself in various aspects of my life, sort of a reverse-midlife-crisis if you want to think of it that way, when it comes to running I seem determined to pound off all of my toenails as quickly as I possibly can.
Wednesday, my four easy miles turned into six. It seemed like no big deal, though with just a little more than a week until my marathon, this whole “whatever I’ll just run about fifty percent more than the plan that was written by an expert advises me to” attitude is, what’s the word? Oh, yeah: stupid. Then came Thursday. Honestly, I woke up Thursday and thought it was a rest day, but I had it backwards; Friday was rest. Thursday was eight miles at marathon pace. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I set out several months ago hoping my marathon pace would be a 9:09 mile, which over the course of the distance between Marathon and Athens would get me there in 3:59:59. Then I decided somehow that I was selling myself short (never mind that a four-hour marathon is damn near a half hour PR for me) and I quickened it slightly. I was thinking 9:00 was a good pace, significantly under 4:00, but not aggressive. Then I got an email from Grandma’s Marathon informing me that they had pacers at 3:50:00 and 4:00:00 but not, for reasons unbeknownst to me, at 3:55:00. Well shit, I thought, and then my inner-zealot took the wheel and suddenly my goal of PR-ing by over twenty-seven minutes (almost unheard of) became a goal of PR-ing by over thirty-seven minutes (almost enough to warrant a psych eval). So, with 8:47’s as my new goal pace, which would allow me to hang around the 3:50:00 pacer, assuming they’re any good at pacing, that is, I set out Thursday morning hoping at first to run eight consecutive 8:47’s. But somewhere between lacing up my sneaks and the head of the trail, my inner-zealot woke up from his nap and craftily pried the steering wheel, and gas pedal, away from me. I really hate that guy.
The weather was fine and I felt good. I’d made a double batch of iskiate, a Rara¢muri beverage that’s essentially a natural energy drink made from chia seeds, lime, and honey. Gringos like me tend to call the drink “chia fresca” just like we tend to call the Rara¢muri the Tarahumara, however I’ve long been an advocate for white westerners not renaming everything with wanton abandon for the cultures and traditions of the things we’re seeking to describe (think Espana and Deutschland, the Banyarwanda, or countless other examples) simply because we struggle to pronounce them correctly. So, fueled by my homemade iskiate (as if store-bought iskiate is a thing—imagine 128 ounces of that stuff, which looks like frog’s eggs suspended in murky water, with a Kirkland label on it!) and a combination of K’naan, U2, and showtunes, I hit the trail. And I hit it hard.
Without much of a warmup, I started turning my legs over at what felt like a “good” pace, paying little attention to my Garmin. At the one mile mark, my watch chirped at me so I looked down at it, only to discover that instead of running my first mile in 8:47, I’d run it in 6:54, nearly two minutes faster than planned. Slow down, I urged myself. No way in hell you could maintain a pace like that for even half a marathon, let alone a full. Slow. Down. And I did slow down. Slightly. Mile two was a 7:56. Glass-half-full types of folks would point out that that’s a minute slower than mile one. People with any grip on reality, however, realize it’s still damn near a minute too fast. Know which one I am? I’ll give you a hint: mile three was a 7:50. Still unsure? Mile four was a 7:44. Giving me wayyyyy too much credit because you know and like me? Mile five was a 7:47, which over half-way through my run and less than ten days from my race, certifies me as a bona-fide grade A nimrod.
In an attempt to compensate, when it finally got through my thick skull that I was not, in fact, going to slow down unless an injury forced me to do so, I just stopped. Five miles into an eight mile run, three miles from my house, I quit moving. Bart Yasso, who designed my training plan, would not approve of the pace I had been running, and from what I know of him would probably be pretty vocal about it. Hal Higdon, who wrote the definitive guide to marathoning which I am currently reading, would have tripped me if he saw me disregarding pace like that. Chris McDougal, whose book Born to Run I consider the definitive work on running (also where I first learned about iskiate), might actually think it was cool, but he’d know better than to say so. Deana Kastor, one of my idols, would curse me for being this reckless this close to my marathon. Molly Seidel, who in addition to being a great racer is one of the most introspective and articulate about the act of racing and the obstacles that runners face, would never behave this foolishly. I could go on. The point is that no experienced runner would do what I was doing. They all know better. So after twenty-five years in this sport, why didn’t I?
I watched a few cars drive by and wiped the sweat from my brow. I pulled my phone out of my belt and checked my email, only barely resisting the urge to tweet about my own stupidity right there on the spot. (There would be plenty of time to write it all down in a blog post later.) I took a swig from my bottle, water first, then Gatorade. I noticed the sweat built up on the rim of the bottle, which presumably had dripped off of me, and realized why the last time I had gone for a run my Gatorade had tasted like SPF50 sunscreen. I pondered a moment longer. My options were to stop being a complete boob, or to walk home. I decided to try the former, and keep the latter in my back pocket in case of emergency.
Mile six was a far more restrained 8:42, still faster than race pace but not unmanageably so. Mile seven was an 8:48, and I chuckled to myself that it was too slow, which in turn may be why mile eight came in at an even 8:30. I had managed to slow down, but barely. I had run fast, but I hadn’t run intelligently, and I had unnecessarily put my odds of running well in the marathon at risk. I got home, did some pushups and other core work, then made an omelet. I recruited a few friends I saw on the trail to run my thirteen miles with me on Saturday, sandwiched between two rest days that I knew I needed to take seriously, in the hope that they’d help me regulate my speed. If I didn’t find a way to seize control of my running back from that inner-zealot I keep blaming for my lack of self-control, I was doomed.
Exercising that self-control on Friday, I took my prescribed day off with difficulty. It helped that I was busy all day with things to do—a haircut, meeting with a friend to try to work on my web page, dropping off a wine donation to a local charity we support, going to lunch and a movie with my wife—and soon the day had passed without a run. I devoted a small amount of the energy that I might have put into miles Friday to critiquing the otherwise excellent reboot of Top Gun for the, in my thinking at least, unforgivable sin of recasting Tom Cruise’s love interest while keeping most of the other characters the same. Know who isn’t twenty-four and gorgeous anymore? Val Kilmer. Yet he was an integral part of the movie. With all respect to Jennifer Connelly who, it bears mention, was fifteen when the original movie came out, making the director’s bullshit claims about her playing the “admiral’s daughter” who was referenced in the first movie enough to warrant an investigation into his own personal affairs, recasting Kelly McGillis would have not only made the two storylines far more congruent, but it would also have allowed the movie to make a powerful and important statement about things like love and beauty. Nope. They just wanted to make a statement about American exceptionalism and apparent immortality of Tom Cruise’s undeniable good looks. Sigh. It was a genuinely entertaining movie if you can just not think about any of that stuff. Jets are cool.
Saturday, I awoke and did some writing, then met Gary (the other friend apparently slept in) on the trail that runs between our houses. Gary is a kind man with a deep love of running and a knowledge to match it. He was an elite runner in high school and college and isn’t much older than me. We set out for what was to be my last double-digit run before Grandma’s Marathon one week later. The out was probably an 8:15-8:20 pace, far faster than intended yet again, but on the back we made a conscious effort and slowed to something closer to 9:15’s. When I got home I felt fine, but oddly weary from such a middling run, perhaps punctuating my need for rest the coming week. Knowing that I had a rest day scheduled Sunday, and knowing that I needed to take it seriously, I ended the week with 35.5 miles, my lowest mileage total for the year since the second week of January.
I began this post with the reflection that tapering is brutal, which it absolutely is, but I suppose more than tapering, injury would prove brutal, if not outright fatal. I simply don’t know what I would do without running, and that thought should probably disturb me far more than it does. Despite having coached cross country for eight years and basketball for more than twice that, and despite having competed in running since I was fourteen years old, I remain a far more enthusiastic runner than I am an intelligent one, never really being able to completely wrest control of things away from my inner zealot. Upon reflection, this bodes ominously for the long future I hope to have in this sport, especially given my observations about how much longer it takes to recover from injury than it once did as I continue to age. I have always preached to my runners, especially the zealots among them, that rest is a vital part of training. It’s ironic that only now that I have resigned from coaching am I beginning to realize how very badly I need to take my own advice.