The invite came innocuously enough, an email among the watershed of daily emails. “Join Asics on an incredible four-month journey to share in all the fun and excitement of running 26.2 miles at the world’s largest marathon.” First thought: Sounds fun; sounds exciting. Second thought: Do I deserve this? Third thought: Shut up, second thought.
Marathon emotions run sporadically. And here, at the start of what would be a four-month journey, I had the cynical thought that as a fit and active 30-year-old, I shouldn’t take freebie access to a marathon that people work decades to qualify for. Then again, a 30-minute disparity between a 2:53:00 qualifying time for my age group (Men’s 18-34) and a Personal Record (PR) of 3:22:58 loomed. But then, all kinds of things can happen in life, and isn’t it rude to reject an invitation to a fun running party? Plus, carpe diem; one should never turn down an invitation to the TCS NYC Marathon.
The other selling point for taking the plunge was four months of support during training, meaning at-large coaching, quadruple shoe tests, trying out GPS tracking, an opportunity to run an international half-marathon, and encouragement while grinding out hundreds of miles. That meant an opportunity for me, a relatively minimalist runner, to try out some other perks of the marathon journey. Then, of course, there was the lure of running the damn thing on a November morning with a million of my neighbors out supporting the racers. The journey proved to be long and varied, and along the way, change came in surprising revelations, which can be categorized into five digestible snippets. Here’s what I learned.
What Coach Says Goes
This was the first time I worked with a coach. Coach Andrew Kastor, who works with elite distance runners, set up a training plan (here’s my adapted-to-Google-Sheets version) and sent along encouraging emails periodically (“I wanted to take this time to pass along some motivational words to all of you. We can all use a little motivation from time to time.” Very true, Coach.). In addition to the pat motivational quotes and the exuberant optimism, the biggest nicety of a coach was having an authoritative person to follow.
During training in the past, there was a bit of ambiguity over whether the yellow-brick training plan was actually leading to Oz. With a coach, one trusts more that the route one follows is the right path. Kastor took a balanced approach to things, too, and mostly, his support was there to rein in any crazy ideas I had — e.g.: Can I replace runs with bike rides? “Why do you want to get on the bike? …I like to keep the weekly running mileage up.” Can I do all my runs on trails? It’s softer. “About 10 to 15 percent of your weekly volume should be done on the pavement/roads to help beat up your legs a little bit.” I’m tired, can I take a day off? “A marathoner pretty much needs to be in a constant state of fatigue, so going into a workout tired is not such a bad thing.” Very true, Coach.
Double (or Triple or Quadruple) Your Footwear
During the training period, I varied my shoes; as Coach Kastor said, “slight changes in the way your foot postures throughout the week will help keep you injury-free!” I kept my primary runners (the shoes I’d run in the race), the Asics Gel-DS Racer 10 ($110), for my long runs and my midweek speed training. On shorter days, I ran with the On Cloudcruiser ($150). For random bouts of variety, I tossed in the Mizuno Wave Hitogami 3 (forthcoming) and the Topo Tribute ($100). The Cloudcruisers I reserved primarily for trail runs, as they offer a bit more ankle stability than the rest of the shoes. The Asics, Mizuno and Topo are all variations on a similar theme — fairly minimal, low- or zero-drop shoes that are meant for speed and lightness rather than support and cushioning. These forced my body to make micro-adjustments while running without straining my neutral stride and indeed, as Coach had promised, kept me injury-free.
Go Pro with Data
As a “luddite” runner who generally eschews all technology in training, a new GPS watch and heart rate monitor proved a major upgrade, with negligible inconveniences. Garmin’s Forerunner 620 ($350) was lightweight (1.5 ounces) and unobtrusive (a few clicks and you’re tracking) and actually enabled running freedom: I could run sans phone (a convenient respite from the screens), and I only had to strap it on the wrist (and chest, with the additional HRM-Run monitor) as I headed out the door. I didn’t need to map out runs beforehand to ensure my distances made sense, and while running, I was able to monitor my heart rate to see if I was pushing myself too hard or too easy during the run.
Before I started using the watch, I consulted with Kastor, whose advice felt appropriately balanced. “When athletes first get them, they usually become very competitive with themselves, trying to better each run’s time and pace. If you can avoid this and take the run as it comes and at the specific pace you are to follow, then they work great.” I felt this surge of competitiveness at first, but integrating the watch into training early on allowed that to spike and then level, and after completing training with the watch, I’d be hard pressed to do it again sans data.
Reward Yourself with More Running
At the halfway point of training, I ran in the SeaWheeze Half Marathon in Vancouver. The race provided a quality reminder that the long, hot August miles in NYC were worth it. Temperate Vancouver weather, an unmatchable girl/guy runner ratio and a course full of jubilant supporters reminded a semi-worn-down me of two things: running is fun, and the light at the end of the tunnel — the TCS NYC Marathon — would be worth the long, lonely days of pavement-pounding alone. It also provided a good opportunity to get out of Gotham, do some self-powered exploring of new scenery and experience what the running community offers at its best: a beautiful, energetic group of healthy, happy people who are so darn proud of you for doing something good with your legs. Pick a fun halfie, and enjoy an appropriate runner-centric mid-training reward.
Finish Training like a Winner to Run Your Best
A few weeks before the race, I spoke with Caroline Rotich, winner of the 2015 Boston Marathon (she, too, was running NYC). We discussed a few pre-race rituals, like tapering, eating and pre-race routine. Rotich runs her last long run three weeks before race day, is careful to taper calories alongside the tapering (a subtle, but brilliant revelation), and has a few rituals pre-race day. “Usually, I don’t like even going to the course,” she said. “But the one thing I do like to do is know exactly where the finish line is. For New York, I go to the park, I know where things lead up to the finish line.”
On race day, she’ll eat three hours before a race — some bread and tea, rice or an omelette. She’ll stretch for a bit, then about an hour before the race, she’ll start warming up. As for when the actual runnings begins, she advised to “take your time. It’s better to be slow a little bit when you are starting. Then, when you get to halfway, use that energy to start pushing.” As the race wears on, it’s better to have energy saved (this is the concept of negative splits). “Once most of the people start slowing, then you can pass a lot of people on the second half of the course to the finish.”
Rotich ended up finishing 10th overall for women, with a time of 2:33:19. As for my run, the day turned out to be less glory and more slog. I finished with a 3:32:30, but never found a groove. Leg and lung strength were there, but it ended up being an off day. This happens, and it’s actually one of the things that brings marathoners back to race again. Over 26.2 miles, one can bask in glory (as I did last year in the SF Marathon), or one can suffer through long miles. It’s the risk in running, and despite thorough preparation, incalculable variables always play their role. So, while I controlled what I could, and learned things from my training along the way, New York proved — in a ragged miles 20 to 26 — that there is still much to learn.