Philadelphia Marathon

philly_001Everything was perfect. My training had gone entirely to plan. Even with the increased workload from school, I was still finding time to get my runs and strength sessions in each week. Over the last couple of weeks I had completed my final long distance training run (20M) and slowly tapered off to conserve energy. I loaded up on carbohydrates the week of the marathon, going from 50% of my food intake on Tuesday to 90% on Saturday. I shook the cobwebs out with a final run of 4M on Thursday morning. I packed two of everything I could possibly need. The weather was holding up and projected to be in the high 40s or low 50s for the morning of the race, with some cloud cover. I had a strategy too. I was confident I would do well. There was nothing in my preparations that pointed to any kind of problem. Even my knee, which had flared up once or twice in a very minor way, was feeling good in the days leading up to the marathon. Like I said, everything was perfect.

I woke up around 4:15 on Sunday morning and started going through my pre-race routine. I ate a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, followed by some light stretching. My gear was all laid out, so getting dressed was a simple process. An hour later, after I was appropriately greased and layered up, I was all set to go. I said goodbye to Jess (who was barely conscious) and set off for the start area at Eakins Oval. For my first marathon, I was remarkably relaxed. There were no nerves or over-excitement. I had planned ahead with appropriate warm up gear. The idea was to ditch the stuff at the start line just prior to the race beginning. Good thing too – the morning was fairly cold. At the start area I dropped my post-race gear bag at baggage check and went to pre-race stretch area. I went through some basic exercises and was starting to get into the zone.

Just prior to the race start I noticed the pacers, with their signature red balloons. Unfortunately, I was in a really bad spot and someway behind both the four hour pacer. When I had registered for the race, I had filled in my expected finish time of 4:20:00, so I was assigned the appropriate starting corral. Trying to move up to the four hour pacer through the already packed corral would have been annoying, so I figured I would catch up to him on the road over the first couple of miles. That was my first mistake.

When the race started, we streamed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Unfortunately, Arch Street was relatively narrow which made it difficult to pick my way through the crowd. I passed the first mile marker at a little over ten minutes and felt my anxiety starting to rise. I passed Jess a block or two later, which helped to relax me a little. At that point, I decided to be more aggressive and start moving up. If I was going to meet my four hour target I had to get back on pace. Over the next couple of miles I made my way through the pack and eventually passed the 4:15 pace runner between the fourth and fifth mile marker. I was also running just under nine minute miles and had got myself close to pace for a four hour marathon.

Around six mile I passed Jess again, this time on Chestnut St and that gave me another motivation boost. My 10K split time was 56:05, not a super fast time by any means but within the expected range. From there, the course wound it’s way west through Drexel country and into Fairmount Park. There were a few hills that helped to stretch out the pack, and I took them in stride as I had done countless times around Prospect Park. I was hydrating regularly, and took on some additional Clif Bar shots for fuel, so was feeling pretty good as we exited the park and headed back toward the art museum. The thought of doing another 13 miles was somewhat daunting, but I fought off the temptation to turn take the half-marathon route and turned left to go the distance. At the half-marathon split, my time was 1:57:05. As a comparison, that was just off my time for the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in May.

Just after the half way point, I stopped to take on water and fuel, and to give my legs a break by walking for a short distance. By my math, I was about two minutes ahead of schedule and could afford a short break to re-energize before the second half of the race. After starting back up, the next three miles passed uneventfully. I still had not caught up to the four hour pace runner, but I was sticking to that pace myself and fought the urge to push too hard. I wanted to make sure I had something in reserve for the last couple of miles. Around 17 miles, the course took a detour from Kelly Drive and wound it’s way over a small footbridge and downhill into a park for about half a mile before performing a 180 degree turn and winding back to Kelly Drive. As I turned off the bridge on to the downhill path, the four hour pace runner passed me going the other direction. This was the first time I had seen him since the start, and it gave me a motivational boost. I made a mental note of the time on my watch, so I could see just how far back I was. Bear in mind that I had started a few minutes behind the pace runner and was holding to that pace myself, so any inroads I could make to the gap would take me under the four hour mark.

And then it happened … the pain shot through my left quad. Cramps like I have never felt before, so bad I could not straighten my leg. I tried to continue but was worried I would do some serious damage, so I stopped. Except I couldn’t stand, so I crouch like I was going to the bathroom. And there I stayed for two or three minutes until the pain subsided and I could stretch my leg out straight. I figured it was all part of the experience, and started off again – going uphill to the bridge and back onto Kelly Drive. By the time I got to the point where I had seen the four hour pace runner, five minutes had elapsed. In my mind, that was still possible and so I pressed on. At the 30K split my pace had dropped slightly but I still recorded a very respectable 2:56:03. The rest stop to get over the cramps had cost me a couple of minutes, but in my mind I was still clinging to the dream. However, the cramps returned with a vengeance, this time on my right quad. So I stopped and massaged, and waited. And then I started up again. And then the cramps returned and I stopped again. Every time I came to a slight incline of any sort, the cramps would hit and I would have to stop or at the very least slow down and walk. I can’t remember at what point I gave up on the four hour goal, but in many ways it was a relief. The reality of the situation had hit me. I was at more than seven miles from the finish and suffering from bad cramps. There was no way I was going to make my goal time and any attempt to do so would have resulted in serious injury.

From that point on I actually started to enjoy the race a bit more. At the 20 mile marker in Manayunk the crowds were cheering for the runners, handing out orange slices and beer! I’m not ashamed to say that I indulged in a small cup of beer. After all, everyone knows it’s rude to say no when someone offers you a drink. With a fresh attitude, I pressed on. I still wanted to finish with a good time, so I ran as much as I could. But just as I was beginning to get some momentum going, the cramps came back and I had to slow down. Admittedly, the remaining miles were a bit of a slog and at times I thought about packing it in. But after putting in four and a half months of training, there was no way I was going to take the easy way out. I struggled, I walked, and honestly if it had of come down to it … I would have crawled up that last hill. As I crested the hill at the art museum the crowds grew thicker, and urged me on. The cheered and yelled, “Go Jason!” (I had that emblazoned on the front of my t-shirt). I wanted so bad to keep running, and so I pushed myself past the mile marker and down the hill. As I swept around the final bend and the finish line came into view, I was overcome with emotion. At one point I could feel another cramp coming on, but using sheer willpower I held it bay – no way was I going to walk over the finish line. If ever there was a case of mind over matter than was it. My body had controlled me for the last eight miles, but this one was mine.

I crossed the line in a time of 4:21:30 and had completed the last 12 kilometer segment in 1:25:27 – that’s an average of 11:24 per mile. As I made my way through the finish area I was more relieved than disappointed. I didn’t really dwell on the time; I had finished my first marathon and that was something worth focusing on. The goal time would have been great, but more importantly was finishing on one piece. It was on later, on reflection and after talking to a fellow runner that I learned the cause of my cramps. It wasn’t my training or preparation – it was a basic mistake of deviating from a tried-and-trusted routine. Throughout my training regimen, I had stuck to a very strict routine. For all my runs over an hour, I took along some sodium supplements and made sure to take them every 30 minutes or so. Unfortunately, even though I had packed them, I completely forgot to take the supplements over the course of the marathon. Sodium deficiency is a major cause of muscle cramps in distance runners and I had fallen victim to it on my first marathon. Stupid really … something I had never paid attention to because it never happened to me.

Looking back now, I am a little disappointed that the cause of my problem was something I could so easily have avoided. But I’m not going to let that take away from the fact that I finished my first marathon, and did so in a relatively good time. Focusing on the positives, my time of 4:21:30 makes a very ripe target for a personal best next time out. And to cap it off, I get to put one of those 26.2 stickers on the back of our car.

Marathon Training Update

marathon_update_001It’s been a few weeks since I mentioned my marathon training, so though this would be a good opportunity to provide a status check. I’m just starting the fifth week of my 18 week training plan. Over the course of the last four weeks I have been extremely happy with how my knee has responded to the rigors of daily activity. Despite the increased workload, I have not felt any discomfort. This may be partly down to the use of a knee strap while running and an ice pack afterward, but that’s a whole lot better than medicating with painkillers on a daily basis. I’ve also been rather impressed with my ability to get up at five o’clock in the morning and get a run in before heading off to work. Whether that continues as the days get shorter and the mornings darker, we’ll just have to wait and see. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are pretty tough with such an early start and I need to be more disciplined about going to bed on time the night before and getting enough sleep.

These past few weeks have been a challenge in two areas; the heat and the distance. If you recall, I really only started running seriously late last year. Prior to this year, I had no experience running in the summer and I have to admit – I hate it. The heat and humidity do not agree with me one bit. Besides being extra smelly when I come back from a run, I find my energy levels depleting quite quickly on runs – even when I’m taking on board supplements and gels. For those reasons, I have not always been able to reach my distance goals on each run. My long run in week two should have been nine miles, but I hit the wall early and struggled to clock in at six. Some of my mid-week runs have been slightly shorter also, both because of the conditions and getting used to some new training routes around Prospect Park.

Even with the aforementioned issues, I like to look back over the opening weeks with some semblance of pride and regard them as moderately successful. I’ve come to realize that it’s not always possible to stay true to the plan, but so long as I’m training smart then I’m making good progress. Although I’m not setting the roads alight with my speed, that I can finish an 11 mile run in a reasonable time and maintain my physical condition makes me very happy. I’ll check in again just before the half way point and prior to the Yonkers Half Marathon with another update, but in the meantime you can get more regular activity-based updates on my twitter feed.

Marathon Training Plan

26_predictions_001I have just finished creating my marathon training plan. I’ve spent some time looking around online and discovered that there are a large number of outlets that actually charge for this service. I’m not going to mention the fee-based services here, but a simple web search will reveal them if you’re interested. I can’t say I’m that surprised that someone has figured out how to monetize training plans, but the reality is that most of the information needed to create an effective plan is available online, and for free. With a little work, any runner can build their own customized plan and save themselves a few dollars. After all, most of these outlets are just reselling a set of canned plans that are tweaked slightly based on the individual parameters that a customers provides. The reality is that nobody knows the athlete better than the athlete themselves! I took the time to create my own plan for the half-marathon and it worked pretty well … so I’m going to do the same thing for the marathon, and fingers crossed I’ll see similar results.

In addition to using the same sources as before, I am incorporating some additional wisdom gathered from fellow runners, online resources and my own experience over the last few months into what I hope will be a well-rounded marathon training plan.

Having never run a marathon, I am vaguely aware of the amount of work required to bring my stamina and endurance to the level required to sustain me for four or more hours of running. I need to be careful not to over train and risk injury, while ensuring I do enough to meet my bodies needs. I am looking at an 18 week plan, with five days of running per week and gradually incrementing long runs on a Sunday (the only day of the week my schedule can support 2+ hour runs). I am planning on incorporating two rest days into the schedule, probably Monday and Friday, to allow myself sufficient recovery time between activities but also to accommodate some cross training such as cycling or swimming to use alternative muscle sets. In addition, I plan on including some variation in the running in the form of tempo runs and speed work. The speed work will combine Yasso 800s, Fartleks, and hill repeats. Essentially, this is the same half-marathon plan with some minor adjustments for the increased distance, workload, and time span.

As the marathon takes place on a Sunday, all my long runs are scheduled for Sunday mornings. I believe consistency is key in preparation, and helps reduce the risk of injury. However, I deviate from that model in weeks two and six because I am taking part in organized races.

Entries highlighted in red are organized races – more information for those can be found on the race information page.

I’m Not In

not_in001Yesterday was the big NYC Marathon Opening Day event, the day when all of us lottery entrants hope that our names are drawn and we can start planning those long and arduous months of training. Like the many thousands of other non-guaranteed lottery entrants, I attempted to open the road runners site around noon only to discover that it was offline. What followed was a somewhat painful wait for confirmation filled with repeated clicks of the browser’s refresh button. Later that evening, when I was finally able to access my marathon profile, I received the unfortunate news that I was not one of those lucky few selected to participate.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t get in because the date of the race has a certain significance to me and it would have been nice to run my first marathon on that day. I’m generally not a sentimental person, but in this case it was particularly disappointing to miss out. However, like any good scout I had planned ahead and am happy to say that I will take part in the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18. A couple of months ago, when details of the Philly event were release, I booked a hotel room for the weekend and marked the first day of registrations in my calendar. With that task completed in early April, it was just a case of confirming one or the other.Even though it would have been nice to have run my first marathon at home in NYC, I’m delighted to have Philadelphia as an alternative. My sister and her family live nearby, so we will certainly make plans to meet up and I have heard from others that it’s a really nice course along the Schuylkill river.

As for the NYC marathon, I will most certainly be in next year. Thanks to my diligence and competitive streak, I have already racked up 4 qualifying races this year with two more to come in May – well on my way to completing the requirements for guaranteed entry to next years NYC marathon via the 9+1 program.

Planning For The Future

planning_future_001Now that I have completed my first half-marathon, I don’t plan on letting up. On the contrary, I am going to continue setting myself more challenging goals and keep pushing myself to reach beyond my limits. That said, I have been taking it easy since the half-marathon. I spent the following few days recuperating, focusing on my swimming as a means of staying active and stretching out my muscles. I ran 5K last Wednesday at a decent clip and felt no pain in my legs, and following a trip to Ireland, got back on the treadmill to clock up 4 miles this morning. I’ll revert to 4-6 mile runs for a couple of weeks to avoid putting too much stress on my body while maintaining my fitness levels and planning for upcoming races.

At this point, I am scheduled to take part in the Scotland Run (10K) on April 7 and the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K on May 12. Interestingly, both races are a full loop of the park but in a counter-clockwise direction – something I have never done before.

Like many others, I was also watching the New York Road Runners site for updates on the Brooklyn Half-Marathon. I caught the news late last week that registration would be open on Monday, March 26 at noon and managed to sign up shortly thereafter. It appears that many others were on the ball too, because ten hours later the NYRR twitter feed broke the news that the race had reached capacity and registration was closed. The race itself is scheduled for May 19th and is one I am really looking forward to as the course includes a long downhill stretch over the second half that follows Ocean Parkway all the way to Coney Island.

My marathon situation should clear up over the next month or so. April 1st is the first registration date for the Philadelphia marathon and the field for the NYC marathon is announced around April 26th. The marathons are two weeks apart, so I can realistically only compete in one of them. My first preference is to run the NYC race, but Philadelphia is close and is a popular course among east-coast runners, so if I don’t get into the NYC race I will be just as happy to run Philly.


why_001When I tell people I am planning to run a marathon, one of the most common questions I am asked is why? This is not exactly a common endeavor, and certainly something that most people fear because of the commitment and effort required.

For as long as I can remember I have always had a desire to test myself against one of the most extreme challenges a person can undertake. Over the last year, as I have become more comfortable running and improved my abilities, that ambition has returned. A few weeks ago, Jess and I watched the New York City marathon and I remember looking at many of those individuals and thinking to myself, “if they can do it so can I.” There is no doubting the physical challenges associated with running 26 miles and 385 yards. The strain on the body must be incredible, and I am only beginning to find out exactly what is required to get myself ready as I research different training plans.

But there is another side to the challenge, one that gets far less coverage but that is probably just as important. There is a significant mental and emotional burden on the runner, over the course of the training and marathon itself. According to some runners and coaches, this can have as much, if not more, of a bearing on the runners performance as the physical preparation. I recently read the excellent Accidental Athlete by John Bingham (link) and was delighted to see the author dedicate time to this area.Even now, as I challenge myself to run ever increasing distances and take part in my first races over short distances, I am beginning to become aware of the need for proper mental preparation.

So why am I doing this? There are the obvious and aforementioned reasons, but primarily because a few years ago I never would have imagined or envisioned myself accomplishing this feat. I want to know what it feels like to cross the finish line after covering that legendary distance – to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I achieved a long-term goal of mine. I don’t care that I won’t finish first – finishing is what matters – completing the run and proving to myself that I can do something if I set my mind to it.