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Grinding Out 20 Miles and the Reemergence of Qualms

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For three days in a row I analyzed weather forecasts for Chicago to figure out the best day to run our final long-run before the marathon: 20 miles. I analyzed Tom Skilling’s forecast, Yahoo Weather’s forecast, and the forecast on the Google widget on my homepage.

I looked at the predictions hour-by-hour, and I calculated. According to these magical weather seers,

Sunday was supposed to be pretty cool (highs in the low 50s near the lake); Monday was predicted to be warmer but windier with intermittent rain showers and thunderstorms, and Tuesday warmer still, but with continuing wind, rain and thunderstorms. I couldn’t push it any futher than Tuesday, because I needed to allow an appropriate and effective amount of time for tapering.

Here’s a rundown about how most beginner’s marathon training plans work:

(pardon me while I don my professor’s cap).

Each week you run three shorter training runs, that culminate in an end of week long run. Each week, the long run gradually increases in distance.

My first long run, On January 8, was 6 miles. After two weeks of increases, there is a step-back week, where you run fewer miles, and then you build up again so the long runs in my first 6 weeks looked like this: 6,7,5, 9, 10, 7. This pattern continues over the course of anywhere from 12-16 weeks, up until the “final” long run. Then comes the “taper” period, which is typically planned to be 2-3 weeks of decreased training.

This may seem counterintuitive.

Wouldn’t it be the most fruitful to continue to increase you distance up to and beyond the ultimate goal of 26.2 miles? Shouldn’t you continue training as hard as possible right up to the wire?

According to marathon-training logic, the answers to these questions are no.

Here’s why.

Obviously, running 20 miles takes its toll on your body. The exertion produces thousands of microscopic little tears in your muscles.

 However, taking time to let those tears heal actually makes your muscles stronger.

(This is what I have gathered from the various things I’ve read — any physiologist is encouraged to correct me). In addition, you want your muscles as relaxed as possible — and you want them to be aching for a running challenge. You want to enter the marathon antsy to run.

But that is only one part of the puzzle. The other has to do with carbo-loading and glycogen stores in your muscles.

Your muscles get energy from burning either carbohydrates (glycogen) or fat. You burn carbs much faster and easier that you burn fats, so the idea is that, the more carbohydrates you have stored in your system, the more efficiently your body will process fuel.

In normal circumstances, your body already stores enough carbs to last the average human 1-2 hours of rigorous physical activity; but running a marathon takes longer than that. It my case, it takes much, much longer than that.

So, the idea is to store up as much glycogen as you can, in part by burning as little as possible. Then, in the actual race, you consume even more carbs in the form of easy-to-absorb energy drinks and gels.

When people “hit a wall” in a marathon,

it is usually because they have run out of their stores of glycogen and their body has to shift gears to start burning fat instead.

Physiologically, this happens to most runners somewhere between mile 18 and 20. From that point on, it is sheer willpower that propels you to the finish line.

And this is one of the reasons you train for 20 miles and not 26.2. Will power is, in part, driven by adrenelin and motivation. You are psyched and motivated to accomplish something you have never done before — finishing a marathon race distance. That desire for achievement is what will give you the willpower to push beyond the wall.

That’s the theory, anyway.

So, back to the weather forecasting. We decided on Sunday. It’d be cooler, yeah, but at least it wouldn’t be raining. Plus running on Sunday left us with a tidy two weeks exactly to taper.  Sunday it was. Twenty miles.

And we decided to keep it simple. We’d run ten miles south on the Chicago lakefront to whereever that landed us, and then repeat the ten miles back. So, psychologically, two back-to-back ten milers. No problem, right?

Except of course I woke up with a visit from my “aunt Flo”.

What that euphemism means is that I had a “special visitor” in my pants. In other words, I’d begun my period (sorry, 3 guys who read this — suck it up). Also, I felt a little unprepared — I hadn’t been carbo-loading at all, had sausage pizza

 for lunch and dinner the day before, and the evening before that, had dinner with friends that included wine, mescal, scotch, and beer.

On top of all this, my painkle was acting up again.

Plus, it was looking pretty gloomy outside.

 Still we laced up, gathered our gear, I popped a couple of ibuprofen, and headed out.

We parked our car at a place we figured was roughly ten miles due north of the Chicago museum campus. It was quite chilly out, but I knew my body would warm up once I started moving. And so, I started moving.

We jogged past all of our usual lakefront landmarks and kept going. Things got a little confusing/twisty turny around Navy Pier as we made our way properly into downtown Chicago but we figured it out and kept going. You know, it’s really hard to visualize what distance ten miles covers geographically unless you are running that distance.

This realization kinds of freaked me out as I thought about the distance we’d be covering in the actual marathon.

Freaked out cat wonders if it is worth it.

I had my first Goo jelly at about mile 8, in proximitey of Buckingham Fountain. Shortly after, we reached the museum campus and ran on the concrete floodwall that bordered the peninsula around the planetarium. Chopping waves lapped up by our feet.

The distance to the planetarium was less than we’d hoped. We’d only gone about 9.25 at that point, so we’d have to make up another mile or so somewhere along the way. We were way behind schedule; we’d already been running for more than two hours and we were not even officially halfway there. And then it started to rain.

Wet cat is not amused.

Still roughly ten miles away from the car, we had no choice but to keep running.

The rain was the heaviest in the South Loop, but remained in the very least a misty sprinkle for the rest of our run. When it wasn’t raining, we were running headlong into gusting winds, reminiscent of our hellacious 16-mile run a few weeks earlier. We were wet, we were cold, we were tired, but we had to keep pushing forward.

As God is my witness, I did not cry.

When we finally arrived back in the vicinity of our car, we’d run about 18.5 miles. Nikki fistbumped me: “that’s further than we’ve ever run!” It was too early for celebrations, though. We still had a mile and a half to make up somehow. In short, we ran in a giant circle around Cricket Hill.

One and a half laps around.

It took everything I had to keep pushing. Towards the end, I got a little extra steam by imagining myself running the finishing lap on marathon day, with people cheering me on.

Nikki, on the other hand, had zipped ahead of me — I don’t know where or how she found the crack rock that she must have smoked somewhere around mile 19, 

(hey, I don’t judge).  All I know is that when I’d finally, finally, finally reached the 20-mile, she was there, with her hand stretched out for me to slap.

“Congratulations, 20-miler!” she said. I had done it! We did it! My time: 4 hours and 4 minutes.

But before I celebrate too much, I have to step back and say that during the run, I began to have some serious qualms about the marathon. Like, when we were at the half-marathon distance, I thought to myself, can I really do twice what I just did? And I didn’t feel very confident about it. Granted it was windy and cold and raining, but who knows what the weather conditions will be on Marathon day? I felt the looming enormity of what I set out to accomplish and I felt very small and inadequate in the face of it.

The cats in the sink are doubtful.

Sure, I ran 20-miles, but it was the most grueling physical thing that I had ever done. My hamstrings hurt, my butt hurt, my feet hurt, my painkle hurt, I had a pinchy nerve in my back, my fingertips were tingling, and in addition to all of that, my knees also hurt.

And so, as I it was with my very first week of training, I find myself wondering, what have I gotten myself into?


About lakathie

Literary lezzie and amateur health and fitness dabbler.

7 responses »

  1. That chick in the picture is chasing the dragon, not hitting the crack pipe. Oh, and congrats on the 20-miler!

  2. You forgot to mention the flan.

  3. Hi Kathie, I’m running the Prague Marathon (and i’m a first timer aswell!) This blog has just made me laugh out loud! I think i’m going to be repeating the mantra ‘pain is temporary, pride is forever” as i get to the gruelling 22 miles ha ha! Good Luck for the 13th, see you at the finish line when we’ve got our medals.


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