April 16, 2015

Are You Made for It?

Picture of girl lying face down on her plate

Last weekend I went to Paris and I ran 42.2 km. It was my first marathon and around the 35 km mark I was pretty sure it’d be my last. I completed it in 4:08:59,  fast enough to know my body can handle it and slow enough that I might try again. But not today. Today I walk like I’m smuggling drugs.

The day was perfect, twelve degrees in temperature as the sun rose between the buildings and gently lit the cobblestone lane that leads to the Arc de Triumph. My friend and I arrived an hour early but it wasn’t soon enough. We were quickly divided on the Champs Élysées by estimated finishing time and shuffled into gated corrals like cattle. We didn’t get to see the elite runners and my friend, who had been obsessing for days about her bowel movements, didn’t have time to use the loo.

The first 5 km was wide and spacious and it felt like I had the whole street, the whole of Paris to myself. Euphoria hit me early. Paris, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world.

The half-way mark was along the Seine river, passed Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of it. Runners who started out too quickly came head-to-head with runners who hadn’t been running quick enough. Thousands of people on a road wide enough for six created a lot of agitation and I was constantly distracted, punching people accidently just by swinging my arms. The congestion lasted for the next 10 km.

The last part of the route lead through a park, Bois de Boulogne, which was smart because if there had been a Starbucks, all of us would have been lining up for a Frappuccino instead. We were struggling. Around the 35 km mark I got super discouraged. I wasn’t going to make my goal time and I was surrounded by roadkill—people lying down, moaning, stretching, crying and vomiting. There was a sign that read Are You Having Fun, Yet?  and I heard myself say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ My legs felt dead—I wasn’t even sure I was lifting them anymore—but  then I looked around and somehow we were still moving. Runners who had annoyed the hell out of me beforehand, became my companions in a common battle, my posse, my push. They didn’t stop moving so neither did I.  I pumped my arms and dragged my legs to the finish line where a surprising surge of energy allowed me to sprint across and collect my medal.

Was the experience what I expected? No. Although the swell of pride came two days later (only 25% of participants are women) I expected immediate elation that didn’t come. I was sure I’d be crying for joy or smiling like an idiot but I just felt dull. Six months recovering from a torn calf muscle, four months of running in the cold and rain, a knee injury, blood blisters and gastroenteritis—I had worked hard enough to know that anything less would have been just bad luck, and luckily that didn’t happen.

Second, running a marathon is really an attitude check. It teaches you a lot about how you speak to yourself—whether you are gentle, patient, encouraging and positive—because all these traits get tested during the training and during the run. People who run marathons are testing their attitude…all the time. This is why I might run another. I wasn't made for it, but I do it anyway.

Thoughts about the Hanson’s Marathon Method

This is a controversial marathon training program I used that only requires trainees to run a maximum of 25 km. The lower mileage is designed to reduce injury but to compensate for it the program demands six runs per week, which leads to constant fatigue. I read the book, the science made sense and for someone who is injury prone, I liked the idea of spreading out my weekly mileage instead of loading 35 km onto a Sunday.

The verdict: Despite four months of constant fatigue and reduced social life, I would definitely use this method again. I would not recommend this plan to a waitress or anyone on their feet all day. I had to tweak the schedule and my paces because of illness and injury (due to improper footwear), which explains why I ran a 4:09 instead my goal 4:00 but my legs were strong for race day. During this journey I noticed several things:

1.     I began to heal a lot faster than I normally do. After a long run I might have a slight pull in a muscle, a sore ankle or a bruise on my leg and wonder if I could run the next day….and I always could.

2.     Running easy runs that didn’t feel comfortable and speed runs when I was already spent was miraculously possible. Even in a grueling six day running cycle.

3.     Maximum 10 mile tempo runs and long 16 mile runs really are all that are needed.

4.     I only lost 1kg of weight. While the percentage of fat on my body reduced significantly, I also had to eat a lot to keep my energy levels up.

5.     You should start this program from the beginning. Daily runs are designed to create structural fitness so even if you’re capable of running 21 km, it doesn’t mean your joints, tendons and bones are ready to run the next day.

6.     I recommend getting a strength training program established before training begins. This means being able to do 3 sets of squats, sit-ups, push-ups and hip exercises comfortably/easily. This way you can maintain your core body strength easily during the four months without adding to fatigue you’ll feel running. After the marathon my arms were as sore as my legs from all the pumping.

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