Yesterday morning I completed my 13th marathon-- the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon. It was a huge disappointment for me, but I think I took away some valuable lessons.
I think it makes the most sense for me to write this blog backwards, starting with the race itself, then moving on to the taper, and then taking a look at my previous marathons.
Even though I was miserable for the majority of this race, I have nothing but words of praise for the Milwaukee Lakefront marathon. It’s a great course, extremely well organized, a highly competitive field, not too large or too small, and with plenty of runner amenities. Before the race started we waited inside a high school with access to bathrooms that had running water. We weren’t called to the start line until about 15-minutes pre-race, so there was minimal waiting around in the cold.
The weather was near perfect. Low 40’s and sunny at the start, mid 50’s at the finish. A 5 mph tailwind. Everything was in my favor. Training had gone well, I avoided injuries and illness, I had some good tune-up races. I was ready!
I didn’t have a particular time goal in mind for this race. My coach recommended that I go out at a pace of 8:20-8:30 for the first 10K, and then gradually speed up. I assume he based this starting pace on my training paces, successful training cycle, recent 8K race and half marathon PR. He’s a conservative coach with a “start slow finish fast mentality” and I agreed that a pace of around 8:25 was easy for me.
He told me not to over-think it or look at my Garmin too much. This sounded like a great plan. Before I got a Garmin, I ran all of my marathons on feel and I had a streak of 7 races that all went better than I hoped for. Somewhere along the way I got addicted to the Garmin’s feedback and stopped running marathons by feel.
My mentality going into the race was to “just do it” and let the race come to me. I wasn’t going to be constantly monitoring the Garmin. I was going to enjoy the marathon and I was confident in my fitness level. I know I tend to psych myself out over marathons, so this time was going to be different because I was just going to relax and run by feel—like how I used to do before my series of bonks.
During the first few miles I just focused on being relaxed and enjoying the scenery. I listened to other people's conversations and was trying to focus on my surroundings instead of the fact that this was my marathon. This was just like a long run.
It was a bit crowded and the 3:40 pace group was just ahead of me. I told myself that I shouldn’t try passing them until after the 10K mark, or even later if I didn’t feel comfortable speeding up soon.
It felt very easy. In fact, I could hear others around me breathing heavily. I knew I was in great shape because I felt like I wasn't exerting much effort at all.
After mile marker 6 I knew I had the coach’s ok to pick up the pace a bit, but I didn’t feel ready for that. My official pace at the 7-mile split was 8:27 and I didn’t feel like I should be speeding up. I was okay with this. I thought maybe by mile 8, 9 or even 10 I would be ready to start picking it up. But instead, I just started to feel worse and worse. 8 miles into the race and I knew something was wrong.
|Yup, something is wrong.|
I crossed the halfway point at 1:50:xx. I had planned on being there at around 1:48, so I wasn’t too far off, but the fact that the race was no longer in my control at the halfway point was not a good sign.
Normally bonking is a sign of going out too fast. A rookie mistake. And if I had felt this bonk at mile 19 or 20, then I would have thought that I went out too fast. But after just 8 miles at a pace of 8:27, I was feeling “off” so I think that there was a lot more going on here. After all, I recently ran 5 miles at a pace of 7:13 and felt fantastic at the end. Yesterday, I ran 8 miles at a pace of 8:27 and was feeling drained.
The bonk didn’t “officially” start until mile 15 when I went into a porta potty and then just couldn’t get going again. I thought I might just finish the race at a slower pace until I realized that I didn’t think I could run much further. I still had 11 miles to go and I wanted to stop completely.
Then, the all-too-familiar bonking things happened. I started getting passed by pace groups that were slower than my PR, and as they passed I remember how great I felt when I ran that 3:51 at Shamrock nearly 4 years ago. I was reduced to a run-walk. My easy pace is now faster than my marathon PR pace. So when I was able to run, I was running at around an 8:50. But I could only run for about 5 minutes at a time before feeling just completely knocked out.
My husband had struggled with Plantar Fasciitis this entire training cycle, so he was in shape for somewhere around 4:00. I knew that eventually he would catch up with me, I just didn’t know when. We had joked before hand that he’d better not find me walking on the side of the course at mile 20, and that’s exactly what happened. He said his heart sunk when he realized it was me. He was running at about a 9:00 pace and I was able to run with him for almost a mile until I had to stop again. I told him to finish and that I didn’t want to ruin his race. He insisted on staying with me and I felt so guilty. At this point, I sat down on the grass, and then lied down on the grass. I just felt completely defeated. I could not go one step further. He told me that I shouldn’t lie down on the grass, got me to my feet again, and we began walking.
Maybe I drank too much water the day before and the morning of. I don't measure my water, I just try to drink lots of it along with electrolytes. Maybe I struck the wrong balance. Maybe I shouldn't have force fed myself so much food the day before because I had very little appetite. My best marathons were all run under cloudy skies, maybe I can't handle the sun at all. I couldn't figure it out. There seemed to be no logical explanation for why I felt so horrible, and why it started so early in the race. One thing that I am certain of-- I did NOT go out too fast for my fitness level. I have far too many races and tempo runs and other factors that indicate that 8:25 is a very conservative pace.
I was crying off and on. I felt like I had ruined my husband's race and I had let everyone down. Why was this happening to me?
Greg told me that I had the rest of my life to think about that but for now I had to focus on finishing the marathon. I just wanted to wallow and cry and not finish, but Greg helped me run/walk.
The last three miles were actually easier than miles 20-23. The course was mainly downhill for those last three miles so we were able to run without too much effort. The scenery started to get really good with a nice view of the lake and some gorgeous houses. That actually helped. We finished the race holding hands and I was so relieved to be done with it. 4:18:51. My third slowest marathon out of 13 and my 6th bonk.
When we got back to our hotel I called my coach. I wanted answers and I knew he’d have them. He did. He said he had a feeling earlier in the week that this could happen to me, simply based on my Facebook wall. He said that the race got built up so much and that I had so many people tracking me that I likely caved under the pressure. He told me how he once won a half marathon in a time of 1:05 and was the favorite to win a subsequent marathon. But the pressure got to be too much and he ended up dropping out at mile 20. He said he’s seen this happen before, when the athlete gets too hyped up about the race beforehand.
I was really trying to NOT do this during my taper, but I just couldn’t help it. He told me I should have stayed away from Facebook the week before my race and relaxed more. Most importantly, he assured me that I was a good marathoner in great shape, and I should just brush this one off and get there and try again as soon as possible.
I took what my coach said and then I combined it with what I knew to be true about my taper. Suddenly all the pieces started to fit. In the two weeks leading up to my marathon, I was a ball of anxiety.
For those of us who love the adrenaline high of running a lot, the taper is not a fun time. We're forced to cut back our mileage and simply rest up for the marathon. It sounds easy to non-runners: all you need to do is eat well, sleep well and just relax. I know that these things are critical to marathon performance, but my anxiety often gets the better of me and this was my worst taper ever.
Aside from the usual taper anxiety, I was also dealing with other stresses. Squirrels were getting into my house and my husband was out of town on business and unavailable to assist or help calm my nerves. Additionally, my job has been really stressing me out as the environment there is changing rapidly and we have a huge event coming up. In fact, one of the reasons I chose Oct. 2 as a target marathon date was because I didn't want that large work event to interfere with my training.
I was trying so hard not to think about the race, but by doing that, I think I made my physical anxiety worse. On a daily basis I was dealing with:
- Night sweats: waking up at around 2:00am covered in sweat
- Insomnia: Not being able to fall back asleep after waking up at 2:00am
- Loss of appetite
- Weight Loss
You aren't supposed to lose weight during the taper. If anything, you gain it. I lost 4 lbs in the two weeks before my race, and that's a lot for a person of my height. I could just feel that my body was on overdrive and I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding.
To combat all of this, I used Advil PM on some nights and was able to get a reasonable number of hours of sleep. The quality wasn't great, but I was sleeping so I thought I'd be fine for the race. Even though I wasn't at all hungry, I ate anyway. Bagels are one of my all-time favorite foods and on Friday morning, it was just so uncomfortable for me to be eating one.
Despite all of this, I never doubted that I would still have a great marathon. I thought I had done everything right in terms of training, nutrition, hydration, etc. I went into the race with a good attitude and I didn't feel stressed on race morning. I had a healthy mentality during the race, but by that time it was too late.
I had already worn out my body in the weeks before my race with physical anxiety. This was my mistake and this is where things went wrong. It's wonderful that I can identify what the problem was, but now I have no idea how to fix it. It's like when someone tells you not to think about an elephant, you can't help but think of an elephant.
The more I tell myself to relax about the marathon and not to have anxiety during the taper, the more I will probably stress about it. And even if I shove it out of my mind, which I did during the taper, the anxiety is there under the surface.
Previous Marathons & The Big Picture
I think I'm finally starting to see what's has been going on with my previous marathons. The first 7 marathons I ran went perfectly and I exceeded my goal each time. The next 6 marathons were all bonks. Yes, some were weather related. But I think weather was only part of the problem.
Here's my theory. During my first 7 marathons, I didn't use a formal training plan and I ran relatively low weekly mileage. I was just doing my own thing and enjoying PR after PR. I was doing so well with marathons, that I couldn't get my 5K and 10K times to be as fast as my marathons suggested. Physiologically, my V02 max test revealed that I work aerobically at a higher percentage of my max heart rate than most people, which means my body is more suited for distance than speed. I was a great marathoner. I always ran negative or even splits. It came naturally to me. 4:46, 4:24, 4:13, 4:05, 3:56, 3:51, and then a "fun run" in London of 4:11.
So I thought to myself, if I can run so well with no formal plan, just imagine what I could do if I followed a plan and increased the mileage! I could probably qualify for Boston!
That's when I started following training plans and got my mileage up a lot higher. Along with this came huge PRs in other distances. My 2:00 half marathon PR gradually turned into a 1:41. My 53:00 10K shot down to a 46:34. Instead of a middle of the pack runner, I was winning age group awards on a regular basis and almost always in the top 5th percentile. And yet, the marathons started to go in the other direction.
In January 2009, I had my first shot at a BQ after a fantastic training cycle. I wasn't sure if I could run a 3:40, but if I missed that, I figured that a 3:45 was certainly realistic. Unfortunately, Arizona had an unexpected heat wave and I wasn't at all acclimated to the warm weather, so I bonked at mile 16. It was awful. It was my first marathon that did not go according to plan.
This race was a legitimate heat bonk and many others were having a tough time in the heat as well. Since then, I've been terrified of running a marathon in hot weather. Also, by the time the next marathon finally rolled around, over a year after my 3:51 PR, I felt like I was long overdue. I had been training to BQ since June of 2008 and now it was April of 2009, so it was definitely time to show off my hard work. But once again, it was a bonk. True, I ended up in the medical tent with hypothermia, but there could have been something else going on. So it was just bonk after bonk after bonk and I chalked it all up to being bad luck. Yes, luck was a huge part of it, but the common factor in all of these marathons was ME. I was the problem.
I don't mean this in a negative way, but the problem is that with every bonk, the more and more determined I became not to bonk. The more and more anxiety would build up pre-race, and I couldn't perform. A good example of this is the Shamrock marathon 2010. That was a very hot race. However, I started feeling awful at mile 10 before it even got to be 65 degrees. I DNFed at mile 13.5 and I felt like I had run a full marathon I was so spent.
Another interesting example was the Potomac River Marathon. That was my back-up race after my Shamrock DNF in 2010. However, when the forecast a week out was for 70's and 90% humidity, I found another back-up two weeks later. I still went to the Potomac River Marathon with the intent of having it be a nice training run of 13 miles. There was zero pressure on me because I wasn't racing it. However, I just felt so great, despite that heat and humidity, that I just kept running and running. All the way to 19. Stupidly, I stopped because I wasn't on pace for a 3:40. (I also had run 10 miles just two days before and was worried that I would be paying for that). But I felt pretty good at mile 19 and I am sure I could have run a 3:45. I performed SO WELL at that race in horrible conditions because. . . .I wasn't racing. I was relaxed.
The pieces are finally coming together for me and I know what the problem is. I know why I keep bonking. I have too much pre-race anxiety and it wears my body out. Unfortunately, this isn't something you can just fix overnight like a hydration issue. I'm probably going to see a sports psychologist and really find a way to let go. I'll probably do another marathon later in the season, but I'm skeptical that I will be able to solve the anxiety issue before then. This has just been snowballing for years.
The good news is, I do know how to run a great marathon. I have seven of them that were well-executed and perfectly paced without the help of the Garmin. I just have to find some way to get back there.