Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Importance of Being Geeky, or "How I Conquered the Columbus Marathon"

The fall marathon season is upon us. And, surprisingly, upon ME. As I vaguely remember, in the midst of a red wine haze on Thursday evening, I declared to my "running" friends that I would indeed attempt a marathon this fall. I call them my "running" friends because they're my awesome friends from my "running only" days who still want to hang out with me even though I went over to the dark side (triathlon).

So... this whole marathon thing got me to thinking about the "olden days" when I used to run a marathon as my goal race of the season. Every year, that was my shot at glory, to get my best time of the season in a race that lasted ONLY around three hours, hopefully (for me). Every year, the disappointment of running great splits right up until the wall, and then begging my body to hang on for five or six more miles. Every year, thinking I could run at least five minutes faster, and then being ecstatic to shave off, maybe, 30 seconds. And every year, wondering what the hell I was doing at the same starting line of the same race. Again.

That "same" race was the Columbus Marathon in Columbus, Ohio. It's a course made for a P.B. (personal best) that used to be held at at a time of year made for a P.W. (personal worst). The time of year was mid-November in Ohio when all hell could break loose, and did, when it came to the weather. One year it was in the 80s. One year it was in the 30s and snowing. One year it was in the 20s with a windchill of 0. Tall tales from THAT year have reported windchills well under -20 degrees F. THAT year was the year I learned that you can, indeed, grow icicles inside your clothing. But despite the weather, I continued to enter the Columbus Marathon many times in the last decade of the 20th century. And it was in the repeat running that I truly learned the importance of taking splits and being a "geek" runner (or mad scientist).

I tell anyone who wants to see their running improve to make a conscious effort to record splits in all their races. Even the bad races. Afterwards, no matter how painful it is, WRITE THEM DOWN. Then, if you must, hide them until you're able to look at them again without crying (kind of like photos of an ex). I've done this religiously for the past 20 years. I have two full "split books," most of which are lists of numbers (mile times) surrounded by textual rantings about how horribly wrong my race went. But even then, when I look back, I find lessons about attitude and what to avoid on certain courses, and sometimes - just sometimes - I figure out how to run that P.B.

And that's what happened in the Columbus Marathon. In November 1998, I decided to run Columbus less than a month after a disastrous attempt at the Chicago Marathon. I needed a pick-me-up (see a pattern here?). I pulled out my split book and Microsoft Excel (this may well be the ONLY time I ever mention Microsoft in a positive light) and plotted my mile splits from 1994, 1995 and 1996. It looked like this:

I've plotted my mile splits for many races, and my best races are the ones for which this chart is pretty much a flat line (i.e., even splits). For Columbus, the first thing I noticed - besides the fact that I run slow first miles, go out too fast, and hit the wall around mile 21 - was something very funky going on around mile 18. Was it just in the Columbus Marathon? I checked other marathon splits... yep, only Columbus. Could it be a hill? Impossible. There ARE no hills in Columbus. In fact, there are very few hills in the entire state of Ohio. I decided I would keep an eye on that point in the race... and try not to go out too fast.

If there's one good thing about being analytical, it's that it takes the emotion out of running. And in Columbus in 1998, I needed to approach the race with no emotion. I had wasted all my emotional energy that year in Chicago in one of my worst marathon performances ever. I had run on less than 3 hours of sleep in the two days leading up to the race. Needless to say, disaster struck.

Columbus had to be different. I approached it with a level head (read: emotionless) and ran not only my fastest marathon by four minutes, but one of my most even-split marathons (to that point). I ran smart, with a plan based on reviewing mistakes of the past. And not surprisingly, I found out exactly what happens at mile 18. It's a dead zone. It's the only point on the entire Columbus Marathon course with no crowd support. When I realized it, I focused on my pace and got through it with no problem. I plotted my splits on the above chart and now it looked like this (note the purple line):

Sure I hit the wall. But I didn't run a slow first mile. And I didn't go out too fast. And I'm sure you can draw numerous other conclusions about both me and the Columbus Marathon from the graph. But I wanted to focus this blog on the race plan I could formulate to conquer the course based on past "concrete" experience (not just my clouded memory). My advice to my readers: remember to record the data. Then USE the data.

In eight days, I will return to another race I've done more than once, the Firmman Half-ironman in Narragansett, Rhode Island. It's a race I'm very fond of for many reasons: it's near where I grew up (Connecticut), it's the only triathlon my parents ever saw me race (and the last race my dad was ever at), it's the course on which I did my half-ironman P.B. (and, interestingly enough, ran my fastest-ever half-marathon), and it's the site of one of my famous disaster stories (in 2008, the whole race was canceled because of Hurricane Hannah). Will I be reviewing my splits from years past? You betcha. There's lots of history. And lots of opportunity. And hopefully, at least one good blog story.

1 comment:

  1. I can totally relate to this post. Over the years I have had some sub 3:00 marathons. In fact, I pretty much finish all of them before 3:00 pm (usually around noon). Yup, just replace the “mile splits” column with “hours on the course” and THIS could be my data…… sigh.

    Your “slowest” mile is my 5K pace (on a good day) and I’m beginning to think I might not be reading your posts fast enough. Is it possible for you to finish a race faster than it takes me to read about it? The fact that I’m even thinking it’s a possibility speaks volumes of my public education.

    I can’t wait to read about your upcoming races.

    All the best,