First marathon down: lessons learned and what to do better next time.

Well, I now get to strike one more item off my bucket list.  For many years the idea of running a marathon has always intrigued me.  When I started running as a means of fitness a few years ago I set that as a potential end goal.  With several aborted attempts at running a marathon in my history I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it, but by breaking it up into smaller goals (first a 10K, then a half then a full) over multiple years I was actually able to finally finish my first marathon.  What can I say besides how awesome it feels?  I could talk about how my legs still aren’t working well the next day, but I think a lot of that comes down to errors in my running and training strategies.

I started off the full marathon having never gone more than 20 miles straight.  All of my long runs during training were done in Heart Rate Zone 2.  For those unfamiliar with the standard heart rate zones they are: Zone 1 (comfortable zone like walking), Zone 2 (low intensity exercise mostly burning fat for fuel), Zone 3 (typical running “aerobic zone” burning sugar and fat), Zone 4 (pretty intense zone burning mostly sugar for fuel) and Zone 5 (super high intensity zone, can’t be maintained for long periods of time.  Ideally I would have cranked my run intensity up from Zone 2 to Zone 3.  I had downshifted my training zones to Zone 2 because I was constantly running out of steam part of the way through, more on that in a minute.  When it came time to race day however I thought about potentially using a different strategy.

The temperature the day of the race was technically warm, mid-60’s, but the wind made it feel a lot cooler than that.  I was thankful for that early in the race but later in the race I wanted it to warm up a bit more.  Because the temperature was decent I thought I could finish the race in about 5 hours, based on the times from my training runs.  I was not going to go out “too strong” and then completely run out of steam half way through.  At the same time I remembered back to my one half marathon.  In that race I held back and still had tons of reserve half way through the race.  I then kicked up the speed.  Another quarter of the race in I was still going strong so I did it again, to the point where I was near sprinting at the end.  I knew this race is twice as long so I was going to take the same halving strategy.  If I felt like I had some reserves I would tap into them, otherwise I’d keep it as is or slow down as needed.

As the run kicked off I settled into a nice maintainable pace, but I let my heart rate go above what I was originally going to.  I originally intended to stay in Zone 3 for the first half of the race, which for me is a heart rate of 136-149.  I quickly realized that for whatever reason my heart rate wasn’t going to stay that low if I wasn’t mostly walking, so I thought about (and did) end up letting my heart rate settle into the low-160’s.  That is right in the middle of my Zone 4 heart rate (149-176).  I knew doing this caused me to bonk (hit a wall) during training, but unlike my training I was going to have as much water, Gatorade and sports gels that I could want at every mile from the second one in.  If my bonking was because I was running out of carbs during the run, as I figured it was, then this would get me through it and I could power through just like in my half marathon.

As the first part of the race unfolded it seemed like I had hit on a good strategy.  My legs felt great.  I wasn’t breathing hard at all (which I can test by being able to breath through my nose indefinitely at that running pace).  My heart rate stayed at a nice steady 160-162.  By the time I was crossing into the 9th and 10th mile I felt stronger at that distance than I had at any point in the training.  By this point in my half marathon my heart rate was in the high 170s and I still had tons left.  I therefore let it drift slightly higher, into the high-160s and continued to power through.  When I crossed the half way point in the race I had beat my half marathon finishing time (albeit on a much flatter course) without trying.  At that point I knew that I was quickly going to find whether my strategy was working or not.

By the time I got to mile 15 I still felt perfectly fine.  My mile split times that had been at or right below 10 minute mile paces for the first 12 miles had started creeping up to 10:30 but I still felt strong.  Perhaps it really was all about the poor fueling strategy after all!  Sadly somewhere between miles 18 and 19 I realized this wasn’t totally the case.  I had never felt so strong in any any of my longer training runs as I did by miles 18 and 19 of this race.  Yes, a good part of that was perhaps the adrenaline of the race, but the better fueling made a huge difference.  In all my training runs over 15 miles I had to complete them with a lot of run/walking at much slower speeds.  The fact I was still powering through (although now at a much slower pace) was a good sign, but I could tell something wasn’t quite right.  The road felt like it was uphill when I knew it was flat.  The stations seemed like they were getting further a part, even though they were spaced almost exactly one mile away from each other.  The thirst quenching and energizing aspect of the Gatorade and water just didn’t seem to do much anymore.  My legs felt finish, but my mind wasn’t cooperating.  I just decided I’d dig deep and power through it just taking more walk breaks.

That strategy lasted exactly two more miles.  By mile 21 it wasn’t a question of whether my mind was working against me, it was a question of if I could get my legs working for me.  My legs were starting to ache, tighten up and not want to go further with any running of any sort.  I was able to have some bursts of running in those later miles.  There was the guy that I continually passed, and vice versa, who provided a little competitive driving.  There was when the 4:45 pace group hit us that provided me some coaching, especially since they were taking walk breaks.  By mile 24 none of those things worked.  I could shuffle-run a little bit but otherwise I could just get my legs keeping me walking, and sometimes cramping at the thought of doing that.  I had no doubt I could finish the last couple miles, it was just a question of if whether it would take me 30, 45 or more minutes to do so.

The body and mind is a phenomenal thing though.  While I was shot at mile 24, to the point that I couldn’t even muster up the strength to keep up with the little competitions I set for myself, when I hit the town with the big crowds I managed to start running again.  Well, it was more “shuffle-running” like the bionic man run, but it was running.  I wasn’t going to walk through the crowds, I was going to run them.  I had tried my hand at running for a tenth of mile, then a little more than that between miles 24 and 26 to make sure I wouldn’t fall on my face or totally seize up.  Sure enough I had that little bit in me, so through the tunnel I went and finished weak but running.

I suppose in terms of achievements there are far greater things, but for a non-athlete with more of a stocky/rugby build than a runner’s build, it was a great one for me.  Now it’s a question of recovery and learning lessons from my first marathon outing.  A little over 24 hours later I’m still very tight and sore.  My body compensating for my legs not cooperating means I’m starting to even get some muscle tension in my back, shoulders and arms.  I’d love to get a good massage or something, but that’s not in the cards.  A good hot bath or hot tub soak worked wonders last night, so at least that will be in the cards.  A little light exercise throughout this week to break up the beef jerky will also be on the agenda when possible.  My heart rate is pretty sensitive at this point too, which is an interesting phenomena.

I’ve measured my resting and sleeping heart rate a few times before.  When I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like my heart was racing, I decided it was a good time to do that as well.  It seemed pretty obvious that my body is in major recovery mode so I would have elevated heart rate, but I was concerned about the possibility my heart was racing even when I was sleeping.  Thankfully it turned out to be something different.  My resting heart rate (measured just after I wake up) is usually somewhere in the high-40s to the low-50s (in beats per minute).  In the past when I’ve measured my heart rate throughout the night that’s been something more like the mid-40s for most of it.  Last night wasn’t too much different, but more like the low-50s.  It was more whenever I got up to do anything, even something as benign as turning around, that things look a bit different.  There is always a heart rate spike when I get restless with sleep sometimes up into the mid-70s.  In this case it was more like into the 80s.  When I got up to get a drink of water it actually shot up to 100 bpm.  That’s usually my heart rate if walking on a treadmill during a warm up.  Obviously it’s taking my body a lot more effort to do things, and I’m moving a lot slower.  But all of this feels normal, albeit not exactly comfortable.

I expect that I’ll be recovering for a few more days.  In the mean time I’m going to look at ways to change up my training for the next marathon.  I think that my distance ramp ups and training schedule were appropriate.  That schedule came from Angie at Marathon Training Academy, a site I highly recommend subscribing to.  She personally led me through my half marathon journey, but I did one of her standard training programs for this race.  I think that my running strategy needs to have me holding back into Zone 3 for a good part of the race too.  The biggest change I would recommend is my fueling strategy during my runs.  I should be able to train in Zone 2 for long periods of time to get my efficiency up, but I also need to be able to fuel properly so that my speeds for each of the zones is faster.  If I had the proper hydration and fuel on those runs I probably would have been running a lot more than walking, and I would have been able to adapt itself for the much more prolonged run in Zone 4.  By improving my efficiency, getting my fitness levels higher and fueling better during training runs I think I will be able to have a far more powerful finish in my next marathon and a better time to boot.

So the big question that I think many will ask is if I would do this again.  The answer to that is a resounding yes.  I think my body may be best adapted for the 10K and half marathon distances.  However I see how I could make some relatively minor adjustments and make lots of improvements.  I’m content with how I ran and finished this race but at the same time I see how I can improve that performance the next time.  For the next several months however it will be about other fitness goals.