A Tale of Two Halves: Return to Running

Running Out

It’s a crisp fall morning in Fresno, California. The day is November 30, 2013. I step up to the hastily marked white starting line along with my fellow Lynbrook teammate Justin Robison for what will be the final race of my high school career. After what feels like an eternity, the starter’s gun cracks and echoes through the autumn air. I join the droves of fellow competitors bursting forward, quickly jostling for position in the course’s starting funnel.

While I had built up this race’s importance, I certainly did not rise to the challenge. I never locked into a steady race pace, and while rolling through the first mile in a brisk 4:53, I foundered over the next two-thirds of the race, slumping to finish the race in a dismal 16:25, 35 seconds behind my personal best that I’d run a month and a half ago. After constructing a promising cross country season, it felt anticlimactic to end things on an incredibly disheartening note.

The following track season presented a new series of opportunities, but I wasn’t very inclined. A severe lack of direction and lack of motivation prevented me from improving on any of my junior year times, and I closed an uninspired track season by failing to qualify for any league final event.

During my undergraduate years, I had made some flimsy attempts to get back into running, but nothing consistent materialized. In the same period that I’d run over 65 competitive races during high school, I’d only run 2 recreationally during undergrad. My university would also play host to a large marathon every April, and I resolved that one day I would participate and finish it. During school, however, I always found that it was easier to invent an excuse than to train instead. I graduated in May 2017 without taking any steps towards meeting my lofty resolution.

Catch Up

It’s now October 2018. I’ve recently moved to San Francisco, and with the change of location, I’m trying to become more active. I notice that a coworker regularly devotes her early mornings before the workday to logging an hour’s worth of running. Inspired by her dedication, I dust off my running shoes and, for the first time in three years, go for a run longer than 5 kilometers. I have to take it very slowly, but I’m hooked.

I invest in new running shoes, and I also bring back my old high school running gear. I’m nowhere near my old speed, but I’m building up my mileage, and soon enough, I’m hitting 5 miles each day. Things are looking pretty consistent, and on a whim, one fateful day, I decide to go long.

I figured that since I moved up to the city, I might as well do some exploration in a grand way. I start running at around 10:45 in the morning, jogging through Embarcadero, Crissy Field, Golden Gate Bridge, then back around Land’s End. Looping back from Golden Gate Park, it’s now been 16 miles and counting. I’m feeling a little twinging pain in my legs, but my enemy isn’t the run itself anymore, it’s the stoplights. Every pause in the run brings back the niggling pain with a vengeance. I power through, following the tracks back to my apartment past the 20th mile. When the dust settles, it’s been nearly three and a half hours, but I’ve circled the city for 21.1 miles.

After the impromptu long run, I’m feeling more confident about lasting longer distances in a race environment. I decide to give my old college goal the old college try. I sign up for the 2019 Illinois Marathon, maintaining steady mileage in the meantime. The marathon will take place in late April, giving me four months and change to train.

Training-wise, things drop off in late December. I go abroad for vacation, but I neglect running daily while I’m gone. I try getting back into the saddle in January, but it takes a whole month to bring my mileage back up to 5-6 miles a day. Things are consistent again, and after a longer 10 mile run, I stumble on a reputable marathon training plan in Strava. Turns out, I’m going to need more than just plain long runs to get in shape for the upcoming marathon.

Although the plan begins twelve weeks out from race day, I jump into the workouts about four weeks in. These workouts are much different from what I ran with Jake back in high school, so it takes some time for me to find my tempo, interval, and relaxed paces when running. Sticking to the plan, I run 16 miles that weekend at a controlled pace. I start early in the morning and head south from my apartment, before taking a right turn up a hilly county park road. After coming down the hills, my legs are worn out from the massively exaggerated camber, but I press on through the countless San Francisco stoplights until I’m back home. It takes me much longer than usual and I feel exhausted afterwards.

While the first week following the plan was tricky, I end up following directions and completing the described workouts. However, things fall apart from there. I start inventing the same excuses as before to get out of longer runs and harder workouts, running only the recovery runs within the plan. Sure enough, this training debt mounts higher and higher, coming to collect on it on race day.

The final long run of the aforementioned training plan called for 22-26 miles, but I barely made it 14 before crying uncle. Feeling dehydrated and fatigued, I throw in the towel and end the long run early. Disgusted with myself, I take a bus to cover the distance, before walking the last few hundred meters back home – the real walk of shame.

Needless to say, I’m not exactly feeling super inspired for race day. However, I’ve already made my arrangements, so I’m not bowing out now. If it’s any saving grace, I taper off properly, keeping my runs before the race light and relaxed. Soon enough, after an impromptu carboload with my friend, it’s just hours away from the race.

I wake up early and pack up my drawstring bag with a couple of essentials, and start walking towards the start line. Although I’m severely unprepared, I’m still feeling the same kind of mixed anxiety and optimism that only a large race can bring. At the starting line, I take a few strides to ease my nerves before settling in my corral. The last minutes before the start melt away steadily, and, after a brisk national anthem, the starter blares a muffled airhorn. We’re off!

When a roller coaster climbs to the top of its first drop, it accumulates potential energy, and it accumulates excitement in its riders. Then, the roller coaster begins to roll faster and faster once it passes the peak, until all of the accumulated potential energy and excitement is released in the form of kinetic energy and screams. The final five minutes to the start builds upwards to the peak. The start releases all the potential energy within all of us, as we burst forward to chase PRs and qualifying marks.

All my anxiety and buildup prior to the race immediately fades away. I slot behind a few runners and we form a small pack, moving through the first mile at 6:10. The pace is too fast. I was planning on running under 3 hours, which means that I should be running around 6:50 per mile. Still, I’m hanging on, and the next mile goes by in a quick 6:20. The initial pack starts to thin out as the other runners move ahead. I’m holding steady, negotiating the gentle curves in the Urbana neighborhoods, and running around 6:25 per mile for the next 3 miles.

Around the 10K mark, I feel a little bit of fatigue in my legs. I ignore it and press on. I figure that it will subside as the race progresses, and I focus on the next mile markers. However, as if on cue, my pace starts dropping down to 6:40 / mile, and then down to 6:50 / mile through the tenth mile. Since I hadn’t followed the training plan and done proper speed work, the sustained speed in the first miles of the race brings back the same 10K fatigue, but a bit harder this time.

I had a pretty fluid stride going through the 8 mile mark of the marathon.

At this point, the half marathon runners that I was following for pace take a left turn towards the stadium to finish off their race. I turn right, and suddenly, things get a lot quieter. There’s fewer fans around, and the runner in front of me must be 200… no… 300 meters away. I cross the half marathon mark in 1:27:23, taking another right turn into the heart of Champaign.

Something isn’t right. I’m feeling a lot more tired, and now I’m dropping off the pace – hard. The next few miles are all over seven minutes each, well over my goal pace. More consistent runners pass me convincingly, and it’s a tall order to try and follow them. Around 18 miles, the same nagging fatigue turns into a sharp jolt in my right leg. I’m forced to walk until the searing pain wears off.

“You all right, buddy?” A traffic officer calls.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just need to walk it off,” I respond.

The pain recedes, but only temporarily. It becomes a regular guest every three-quarters of a mile, forcing me to walk even more. I wasn’t going to be able to hit my goal, so I focused on finishing instead. There were more runners to keep me company now, but I wasn’t feeling the same cameraderie that I felt during the first half. The clouds above darken, as if to curse my poor performance. I continue through the labyrynthic Champaign neighborhoods. Was that the 20th mile that I just passed? Or was it the 21st? I can’t remember. I keep pressing on, with one mile feeling like ten. The 3:15 pacer and his entourage blow past me. I try keeping up, but my haphazard hobbling can’t match their fluid strides.

After more intermittent running and hobbling, I cross Neil Street and pass underneath the Amtrak bridge marking the twenty-fifth mile. My legs are jelly as I turn right towards the stadium and the finish line. I will myself forward through the last few meters across the artificial turf. The clock is ticking towards 3:29:00, but I cross through the finish before it does.

It’s official – I’ve run a 3:28:50.

A respectable time, to be sure, but I can’t help and beat myself over my poor pacing. I ran the first half in 1:27:23, but then slumped as I did 5 years ago to run the next half in 2:01:27 – a massive 34 minute difference. What happened?

It’s the training. Instead of taking on the tougher workouts and longer runs, I was content running shorter and easier. Something will have to change if I want to be a successful marathoner.

While the pain eventually fades away over the coming days, something else doesn’t. I keep thinking to myself that while this was my first marathon, it certainly will not be my last. I have to do better. To that effect, I register for two more marathons – the 2019 San Francisco Marathon in late July, and the 2019 Santa Rosa Marathon in late August.

Once More, With Feeling

I give myself a single day’s rest before I work on the same training plan again, this time for the San Francisco Marathon. I’m still feeling soreness from the race, but the easy runs provide good recovery.

As it turns out, I’d registered for another race – the 2019 Yosemite Half Marathon – around the same time that I’d signed up for the marathon. The race would be only two weeks after the marathon, which means that some soreness during the race would be inevitable. I run the race as consistently as possible, treating it as a long run underneath the marathon training plan. While I open the first mile at 6:40, I slow down to a 7 minute mile pace and maintain that for the rest of the race.

The Yosemite Half Marathon was mostly a downhill course, with a majority of the race taking place on different roads.

The altitude and my general soreness slow down my race considerably, and even though the course is largely downhill, I close things out in a 1:32:30. Although it’s 15 minutes off of my personal best that I’d set 5 years ago, I’m much happier that I’ve run a much more consistent pace compared to two weeks ago.

Things start turning for the better with respect to training. My workouts are more consistent, I’m not missing any long runs, and I’m tackling speed workouts head-on. In fact, as of writing, I’ve not missed a long run in my training plan. Two weeks ago, I ran a 5 mile tempo in 31:58, a pace that I wouldn’t have dreamed of running in high school practice. Last week, I ran a 3x5K tempo workout, completing each interval at a controlled and consistent pace. And, two weeks ago, I came very close to completing a fast finish long run.

The Fast Finish Long Run is a special kind of long run that serves as a strong indicator for race success. First, you start slowly, running at an easy pace for the first 6 miles. Then, after holding the easy pace, you run the next 8-10 miles at your goal marathon pace. Finally, you push the last few miles very hard, running them at your 10K pace. Greg McMillan of McMillan Running remarks that “if you could finish a 14-22 mile fast finish long run with the last 8-12 miles at a fast pace and the last 2-3 miles very fast, then you would have no problem accomplishing your goal in the marathon.”

During my “training” for the Illinois Marathon, I’d only attempted the Fast Finish Long Run once out of the four times prescribed on the training plan. The run ended poorly; I could only hold on to my goal marathon pace for 1.5 miles.

However, in my most recent attempt, I did hold on to my goal marathon pace for 8 miles before tapping out. I was severely dehydrated, fatigued, and defeated, but I’d come much closer to finishing the run than I did before. While leaving the workout incomplete left a horrible feeling, there will be more chances to complete the run and prove my fitness before San Francisco.

In a recent long run, I took along an energy gel that I’d invested in. I held off on consuming the gel until around the half marathon distance, which is usually when I began to feel fatigue in my longer runs. The gel worked, and provided me with a solid boost that propelled me to complete the 20 mile run. I quickly fueled up, eating breakfast and drinking a smoothie shortly after, and felt none of the same fatigue that plagued me at the same distance two months ago.

An improved training regimen and a better nutritional plan make me much more confident in my performance for my upcoming races. Although bad races impart the worst feelings possible, as runners, we have to take them in stride and move on to the next mile. I’m hoping – no, I’m optimistic, that my next half of running will be a promising one.

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