The Marathon Mulligan (and lessons learned along the way)

I should have been done. When I signed up for the 2011 Chicago Marathon – my first full marathon – I did so fully intending to take a well-deserved break afterward. I wasn’t going to stop running completely, but I was ready to hop off the marathon training-go-round after eight months of speed work, long runs, hill workouts and even longer runs. I was excited for the race, and excited for the rest.

Then I had a Chicago-style meltdown, finishing the marathon more than an hour slower than my goal, and my plan changed. Before the race, I wasn’t sure if I would run another marathon. Immediately after the race, I swore up and down that I would never run another #@*$! marathon again. A week later, I was online looking for a winter race that fit my schedule, understanding Chicago would forever haunt me if I didn’t give myself a chance at redemption. I settled on the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, strapped on my running shoes and reluctantly started training again.

When I cross the finish line in Phoenix Sunday morning (hopefully in 3:30 or faster), I will have finished two marathons within three months of each other. It’s a bit unbelievable considering how intimidating the thought of running 26.2 miles seemed to me at this time last year, but things get even crazier.

I learned just before Christmas that I’ve been accepted onto the press tour for the 2012 Tokyo Marathon. One catch: Writers on the tour are required to run the race. I knew it would be a challenge to run another marathon a mere six weeks after Arizona – and still only four months after Chicago – but that’s not an opportunity you pass up. That’s what my brain said, anyway; my body was already begging for mercy.

Of course, I won’t be the first guy to run two marathons in six weeks. In fact, there are tons of runners who have run multiple marathons and/or ultramarathons in back-to-back-to-back-(-to-back-to-back…) weekends. I call those kinds of runners freaking nuts. Or maybe inspirational. Probably a little of both, come to think of it. I’m not of that caliber, however, so I’m more than a little…curious…to see how I pull this one off.

As I prepare for the start of my marathon double-header in Phoenix this weekend, I took the time to go through some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far in my training. Some of these are things I already knew but were driven home during the hundreds of miles of falling footsteps over the past year, while others were new lessons that cropped up along the way. I plan on adding to this list after the Tokyo Marathon, but for now, here are five I’ll take with me to the starting line this weekend.

Nothing new on race day. I figured I’d start with the most important lesson since I had to learn it the hard way. I’d heard this “rule” many times before but thought it was more a case of playing it safe than anything else. How much could a different type of food or sports drink really affect you on race day? I never much worried about small details like that and I didn’t want to start micromanaging now. Then I had to take Tylenol with codeine to help me sleep through my shoulder injury during the week leading up to the Chicago Marathon, which I later learned led to my disastrous finish (codeine is known to cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance). Prior to each of my first two half marathons, I had a Peanut Butter Crunch Clif Bar for some added pre-race nutrition even though I’d never before eaten one, prior to a race or otherwise. It took me several months to realize the Clif Bar was the source of my severe stomach discomfort after both races, a situation I (thankfully) haven’t had to replay since eliminating Clif Bars from my routine.

A friend asked me about a month ago if she should try running her half marathon that weekend in compression tights. She had used compression socks after a race but had never run in any sort of compression equipment. My advice: nothing new on race day. I said it probably wouldn’t hurt her to run in the compression tights but I strongly recommended that she not test that theory during a 13-mile race. You never know how your body will react to any sort of change to your routine, and the worst possible time to experiment is on race day. If you’re trying a new type of energy gel or sports drink, breaking in some new equipment, or anything of the sort, do yourself a favor and first test it on a training run. Race day is crazy enough without throwing a bunch of unknown variables into the pot.

You only have so much control. I was healthy, confident and excited leading into the Chicago Marathon, then a freak injury to a nerve in my shoulder wrecked everything. No matter how methodically you set up your training routine, how devoutly you stick to your plan, or how great you feel during your training, some things are simply out of your control. You may roll your ankle or come down with a nasty cold a week before your race. Oh well. The only thing you can do at that point is determine whether or not you can still run, and then do your best under the circumstances. That’s precisely what I did for Chicago, and what I did in Cleveland when dealing with a knee injury (see below). I’m about as healthy as I could hope for heading into Phoenix, and I’m just hoping I stay that way for a few more days. And then six more weeks after that.

Run, then race. I went into the Cleveland Half Marathon last May with a mysterious knee injury that had me wondering if I’d even be able to finish. My training leading into the race had been erratic because of the injury, so I decided to run the first 10 miles at a relaxed pace in hopes of having enough left in the tank to finish strong. This time, the plan worked to perfection. I came through each mile at a steady 7:15 pace and after I passed the 10-mile mark, I found another gear and cruised to a PR of 1:32:51. In hindsight, I probably could have taken off a little sooner but I chose to play it conservatively and was obviously thrilled with the results. By taking the time to settle in early, I gave myself an opportunity to truly race the final quarter. The opposite approach, of course, is to go out too aggressively, face plant around the midway point and then drag your sorry carcass across the finish line. I did that in Virginia Beach a couple months later. I’ll be following Plan A this weekend.

My form is a work in progress. My high school coach told me once that I had the best form on our team. I took that to mean I didn’t need to improve in that area. Wrong. After reading (and loving) the book “Born to Run,” I picked up a pair of Saucony Kinvara (a lightweight, minimalist-type shoe with a low heel-toe drop) and began shortening my stride, quickening my turnover rate and focusing on hitting the ground with my midfoot rather than my heel. My knee almost immediately felt better. While doing a track workout with a neighbor a couple months ago, he mentioned that I should try dropping my arms a bit to help my breathing and loosen me up. Now my shoulders aren’t nearly as tight after a run as they used to be. I still catch myself striding too far or lifting my arms during runs, but I just readjust and instantly feel the benefits of my improved form. It takes a lot of research and field work to find what’s best for you, but Runner’s World is a great place to start.

I love owning a treadmill. This last one seems a little strange coming on the heels of my last post about winter running, but as a work-from-home father of three, having a reliable treadmill in my basement has been a godsend. I still try to get outside as often as possible, but I’m no longer hamstrung by poor weather conditions or other people’s schedules. Sure, it’s boring, but Netflix has been a fine running partner for me since buying our NordicTrack C900 last month, and while it will surely collect a bit of dust in the spring, summer and fall, I’ll run it ragged every winter. Using a treadmill at your local gym also works, but it’s not nearly as convenient as having one at home. Even better, I’ve done two 10-mile runs on my C900 and am pretty confident I could tack a few more miles on in a pinch.


Be sure to check back next week for my recap of the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and in February I’ll kick off my Tokyo Marathon coverage as I learn just how well my body can handle two marathons in six weeks! editor in chief Jamey Codding ran competitively in high school, took a brief 15-year breather, and then came back to run four half marathons and a full marathon in one calendar year. Read all of his Runner’s Journal posts, including his Chicago Marathon recap, and learn why he runs.


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Runner’s Journal: Winter running

If you’re almost as likely to see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as you are to see a snowflake, this column isn’t for you. If, however, you want and/or need to brave the elements during the winter months when temperatures plummet, snow swirls and frigid headwinds greet you no matter which direction you’re headed, keep reading.

Winter running isn’t easy, nor is it convenient. Instead of quickly throwing on a pair of shorts and a shirt, you may need to wear pants or tights, a long-sleeve shirt or two, a jacket to fend off the wind and moisture, a hat or headband to keep the noggin warm, and a pair of gloves. It takes almost as much work getting ready for a winter run as it does to actually do the run, but if you’re training for an early spring race, cold-weather running is a necessity.

Fortunately, training in the winter has its advantages and, like most things in life, you get used to it after a while. In fact, some people enjoy running in the winter more than the summer, men and women who understand the importance of layering their clothes from November to March (or later) every year, who choose the frozen tundra over a boring treadmill whenever possible, who leave for a run on a glacial January morning and return an hour later with wet feet, frosty eyebrows and icicles hanging from their nose. How do they do it?

My high school coach had one standing rule when we started training each January for the upcoming track season: As long as it was above 15 degrees, we ran outside. I don’t need to tell you that 15 degrees is cold, but not cold enough to force us inside to run five or six miles through the halls of our school. Talk about boring.

So we layered up most days, just as I do for my winter runs today. The only real difference is the switch from the cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts we used to wear to the more modern wicking materials that pull sweat away from the skin, help regulate temperatures and provide insulation for your body. On the coldest of days, I’ll usually wear one short-sleeve tech shirt, two long-sleeved ones, a heavier running jacket to keep all the heat in, and then a lightweight windbreaker to block any moisture and wind. It seems like a lot, but it’s been the perfect combination for me over the last couple of years, and if it’s a slightly warmer day, I simply eliminate the second long-sleeve shirt or other layers as needed. Find what arrangement works for you and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Some runners stick with shorts in the winter months as long as they can, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my knees, ankles and just about every muscle in my legs stiffen up in cold weather. In the most extreme conditions, I’ll turn to slim fit track pants to keep my legs warm and toasty while adding as little wind resistance as possible. Those baggy warm ups you wear to the gym will only slow you down in gusting winds and driving sleet or snow.

On dry, milder days, I prefer to wear black wicking tights under my running shorts. Sure, you may feel goofy at first, but they’ll keep your legs warm while offering virtually no wind resistance. Plus, you can use them under your pants when you’re sledding with the kids or shoveling the driveway.

As for the other gear, I use a set of wicking gloves along with a headband or, in really crummy weather, a stocking cap with a small bill on the front to shield my eyes from the snow and rain. I usually wear my standard wicking socks throughout the winter, but am intrigued by the various all season waterproof socks that are available. My feet tend to stay warm during cold-weather runs, but one misstep can leave your socks soaking wet, with a blister or three sure to follow.

Knowing what to wear is only part of the winter running equation. The roads can be treacherous for any runner even in perfect weather; slick conditions only increase the danger. Do your best to protect yourself by avoiding busy roads and/or those without a shoulder to run on. That’s good advice for any season but is particularly useful in the winter when icy roads can quickly lead to disaster.

If possible, it’s also best to avoid running during any sort of moderate snowfall. You don’t want to get five miles away from home only to realize your path back has become much more hazardous than the path out. And with daylight running out earlier and earlier, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to finish your run before darkness hits. Running on roads at night in the middle of a snowstorm is no fun for anyone.

Winter training does offer a few benefits, the most obvious being the reduced risk of dehydration, heat stroke and other issues that come with summer running. All things being equal, I’d much rather run in 30 degrees than 90 degrees, as long as I’m dressed properly. Plus, your body works harder to keep you warm during a winter run, and it takes more effort to run on snow and ice (like it does on sand), which means you’ll burn more calories than you would in the summer.

On a personal level, I enjoy the solitude of a winter run, punctuated by the sound of crunching snow and ice under my feet. The path I do my long runs on is littered with runners, walkers and bikers during the warm months, but I only saw three or four other people during my 20-mile run two weekends ago. For those of us who enjoy the peace and quiet of a good run, the winter is where it’s at. On top of that, forcing yourself outside even once or twice a week can help stave off those dreaded winter blues.

Now, all of that said, I’ve grown to appreciate the practical advantages of owning a treadmill after buying a NordicTrack C900 last month to help with my marathon training. I still do my weekly long runs outside, in part because I’m not eager to put in 15 to 20 miles on a treadmill, but having the NordicTrack in my basement gives me the freedom to get my shorter and/or faster runs done on my own schedule during the week, without having to deal with the notoriously fickle Mother Nature. I’d still rather run outside than on a treadmill, but that’s simply not always possible if you’re trying to brave an Ohio winter when a snowstorm can wreck your training schedule for a week or two.

So don’t hang up your running shoes when the snow starts falling. Instead, get some warmer gear, get motivated, get bundled up and get outside. As long as it’s at least 15 degrees out, of course. editor in chief Jamey Codding ran competitively in high school, took a brief 15-year breather, and then came back to run four half marathons and a full marathon in one calendar year. He’s currently training for his second marathon, the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, on January 15 and just learned he’ll be running the Tokyo Marathon six weeks later. Read his Chicago Marathon recap and learn why he runs.


Runner’s Journal: The race day hangover

You trained for months, sliding on your running shoes to head out into the rain, snow or blistering heat, logging miles when your legs were begging for some well-deserved down time in front of the TV, all in preparation for that moment you had circled on your calendar for ages: race day.

Whether you’re a competitive runner with dozens of races under your belt or a newbie who’s anxious to cross the finish line for the first time, there’s nothing quite like race day. After all the training, adversity and anticipation, it all comes to a head on race day. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 5K or a marathon; all that matters is the task at hand, the race that lies ahead of you. Even better, you’re surrounded by people who’ve gone through the same experience to get to this moment, and most of them are just as excited to see what the day holds. As a runner, you’re part of a growing community — the number of marathon finishers rose to a record 467,000 between 2008 and 2009, a jump of nearly 10% — and on race day, you can see it. You can feel it. It’s an awesome experience.

But eventually, the race will end. Whether you’re happy with your time or just happy to have finished, you’ll cross the line (or get booted from the course) and that moment you waited for, the dedication and hard work…will be over. Then what?

Like the much more common hangover, a race hangover can cause physical pain — body soreness (obviously), a headache (if you haven’t properly rehydrated), and even nausea and diarrhea. Unpleasant, perhaps, but true in some extreme cases. For me, though, the toughest part is the emotional letdown once the excitement wears off and everyday life takes control again. I felt fantastic after I finished my first half marathon last year — well, okay, I felt like shit, but I felt good about feeling like shit. I’d worked my tail off all summer and ran four miles farther than I had ever run before, and I finished with a strong time. It was a great day.

Then I realized I didn’t have anything to train for anymore. After being so focused on this one race for so long, I suddenly felt lazy and uncommitted. Was I going to fall back into my life of inactivity and excuses now that race day had passed? The mental and emotional shift — from race prep to race recovery — was pretty startling. The cure? Well, I signed up for the Vegas half marathon two months later, but different people will handle their race hangovers differently.

If you choose to jump back into the racing community, be sure you’re realistic about your goals and that you give your body enough time to recover. Obviously, your down time should be longer between longer races, but as always, just listen to your body and be smart when you choose your next race. Don’t let a particularly persistent race hangover force you to commit to something you can’t handle. If you’re new to this, take it slow and enjoy it along the way. As you get more miles under your feet, your racing frequency will jump too. That’s when it really gets fun.

Nearly six weeks later, my hangover from the Chicago Marathon is still lingering. Fortunately, I finally figured out why everything went so horribly wrong — I was taking Tylenol with codeine to help me sleep through my shoulder pain, and didn’t know that codeine can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, a particularly brutal combination for a marathon — but now I’m just anxious to get a quality time on the board after finishing more than an hour slower in Chicago than I had planned. Not wanting to waste my eight months of marathon training, I’m aiming to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon on January 15. Tick tock.

My legs have been more tired and sore than anticipated as I’ve ramped my training back up, which makes me wonder if I’m trying to climb this mountain too soon after my last attempt. I’m being cautious, though — I haven’t signed up for the race yet or booked any flights — and I finally had a strong run earlier today, so I feel like I’m on my way. I’d prefer to not have to train through an Ohio December, but so be it. As long as my body holds up, I’ll be out there on January 15, gunning for 3:30 again.

Some hangovers are just too strong to ignore.


2011 Chicago Marathon: Making the best of a bad situation

For eight miles, everything was perfect. For the next 18.2 miles, nothing went right.

I came through the first mile marker of the 2011 Chicago Marathon at about 8:05 and comfortably held a steady pace for the next seven, soaking in the energy from the incredible crowd, taking in the view of the city and thoroughly enjoying the start of my first marathon. It was a pristine morning, with the race’s 45,000 participants treated to 64-degree temperatures and a gorgeous blue sky, and my goal of savoring the moment early on instead of obsessing about my time had thus far unfolded as planned.

I crossed the eight-mile marker in just about 64 minutes and prepared to settle in for the next 12 miles, hoping to start shaving some time off my pace before hitting the final six-mile stretch. I knew I’d need to have something left in the tank to finish strong, having topped out four weeks earlier with a 21.5-mile training run, so I was planning on listening to my body to see just how much I could safely push the pace.

I didn’t like what my body had to say.

The good news? My shoulder felt fine. Actually, it felt great. I had a case of subscapular bursitis crop up the previous weekend (NOTE: the injury has since been diagnosed as nerve compression), and while it was a painful injury, I learned during a six-mile run on Thursday and a slow two miler Saturday morning that it actually felt better while running. Hoping to prevent any late-race soreness, I slapped Icy Hot medicated strips onto three different spots of my back, just to be safe. That may very well have been my first mistake of the day.

The bad news? My legs weren’t feeling nearly as good as my shoulder. At a time when I should have been finding a mid-race groove, my legs were tired. Too tired. Certainly too tired for mile 8 of a 26.2-mile race. I knew I would be pushing my body to an extreme that day, but I wasn’t ready to do it yet. Okay, I thought, I’ll just maintain pace for now and hope my legs recover in time for a strong finish. They didn’t.

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Training for Marathon #1: Race weekend

Ah, the curveball. The dreaded “bolt from the blue.” With just over a week to go before the Chicago Marathon, I was lounging in bed on a lazy Saturday morning, watching TV and delaying the start of my day as long as possible. I had to knock out an easy 10 miler later that afternoon — my last long run prior to the race — before coasting through the final week with two short runs on Tuesday and Thursday. I felt great about my training, confident that I’d worked hard to put myself in position to run my best race possible on October 9, and also fortunate that I’d avoided any sort of serious injury that would interrupt my training or affect me on race day.

Then, I felt a twinge in my shoulder.

I had been sitting with my right arm slung over my head, an odd yet comfortable position I often find myself in while watching TV. Only this time, when I stood up, my right shoulder felt a little sore. Nothing alarming at first, just something I figured would pass within a few minutes. Instead, it got worse…and worse…and still worse. The pain got so bad — so sharp and so deep, right behind my shoulder blade — that I was convinced I must have pinched a nerve or something. Knowing the race was approaching and growing increasingly concerned as the pain swelled to an almost unbearable level, I headed for the ER, wondering how the heck I hurt my shoulder so badly while watching TV, and just a week before my first marathon. Fantastic.

The ER doctor gave me a quick examination, ruled out any nerve issues or muscle tears, then gave me prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and pain killer to help treat a strained shoulder. Monday afternoon, still in considerable pain, I headed to my sports medicine doctor, who took one look at my swollen shoulder, noting how far my shoulder blade was “winging out” (his term), and diagnosed me with subscapular bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid-filled sac that sits between my shoulder blade and rib cage. The good news, he said, was because my injury wasn’t muscular in nature, I’d still be able to race Sunday, which was obviously my biggest concern. He gave me a cortisone shot to reduce the pain and inflammation, and my range of motion almost immediately improved. The bad news, though, was that my shoulder would most likely bother me to some degree during the race and, in my doctor’s words, my arm was going to be “extremely sore” afterward. Hey, something to look forward to, right?!

Of course, I’m just relieved I got the green light for Sunday. Then again, the only way I would have even considered skipping the race entirely would be if the doctor told me trying to run through the injury would cause further damage. With that not being the case, I’m ready to gut this out and deal with the pain on race day, to whatever degree. What choice do I have? Sure, the circumstances could be better, but it is what it is. I refuse to let something so random detract from this experience, a moment I’ve been training for since February, a moment I’ve envisioned for years. Crossing the finish line Sunday is going to be an unbelievable experience, even if my shoulder is on fire when it happens. To quote Forrest Gump: Shit happens. I need to manage the situation and adjust my expectations.

When I first started training, my pie-in-the-sky goal was to run better than 3:10 in Chicago to qualify for the Boston Marathon. As the race has gotten closer and I’ve piled up more mileage, I’ve pulled my expectations back a bit. My main priority now is to start comfortably with a reasonable pace that will allow me to cruise through the first half of the race. That may seem obvious or simplistic, but it’s easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement on race day and find yourself coming through the first mile much faster than planned. Strategy goes out the window at that point. Considering the Chicago Marathon ranks as the third largest race in the world, with more than 45,000 participants and a course filled with raucous and supportive spectators, sticking to my plan early and putting myself in position to run a strong second half will be even more challenging.

Assuming things go as scripted, however, my baseline goal is to run 3:30, an 8-minute-mile pace I handily topped on my longest training run of 21.5 miles. Setting a reasonable goal will make it easier to ignore my watch in the early stages and settle into a comfortable pace while also giving me some wiggle room in case my shoulder gives me more trouble than I’m anticipating. If, however, things break my way during the race and I feel better than I’d hoped, I could realistically break 3:20. The chances of that happening may have taken a hit with this freak shoulder injury, but I’m not abandoning my best case scenario days before the race.

Ironically, I had been fighting a cold for the past couple weeks, eating more fruits and veggies while loading up on vitamin C to stave off anything that could sap my energy and complicate things on race day. I even skipped a cold and rainy training run two weeks ago to ensure I didn’t get sick. Fortunately, those actions paid off, but while I may not have been able to avoid injury, at least my legs are healthy heading into my first marathon. For that, I’m grateful.

I expected to encounter one or two hurdles in my training, but I didn’t expect something so random to happen so close to race day. I’m hoping to get at least one run in before Sunday, but my shoulder isn’t quite ready yet. On the plus side, I have a few more days to recover, and while I could have done without the monkey wrench, I won’t be the only one on the course dealing with an injury, nor am I the only runner whose training was interrupted along the way. Rather than worrying about factors beyond my control, I’m determined to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s race weekend, a weekend I’ve had circled on my calendar all year, and I’m as ready as I can be.

When life gives you lemons, sometimes you’ve got to figure out how to make lemon-lime Gatorade.

Jamey has tracked his training for the 2011 Chicago Marathon — his first full marathon — in his Runner’s Journal. Assuming he survives, Jamey will return a week or so after the race to recap the event as he looks forward to running the Tough Mudder next March. Email with comments, questions or your own thoughts on running, and see why Jamey runs.