The George Washington Birthday Marathon was a lovely, if cold and windy, race. The rural setting of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center appears plucked from my boyhood home in Garrett County. However, this report doesn't get around to the actual race. Rather, it limits itself to race preparation. The reason, as Ozzie Gontang might explain it, is that I wasn't there. My mind went on ahead and left my body out on the course, by itself, to finish the marathon alone.
I hope to learn from that mistake. The body doesn't run well by itself, which is why my 8:30 goal pace slipped away in the waning miles. The impossibly long hill leading up to the 25 mile mark delivered the crushing blow. I know better, yet I continue to make careless mistakes about hydration, form, and pacing. On the bright side, I managed not to aggravate a pulled hamstring while chalking up a personal best time. Still, one day, I intend to run a marathon properly.
Ultra-marathons reveal our strength by reducing us to a state of weakness and seeing what happens. Nick Marshall: The Complete Marathoner
I suggest Galloway's Marathon to Becky as she prepares for the 1999 Marine Corps Marathon. Frankly, Galloway wrote a silly book, but the careful reader can still harvest the occasional kernel. Galloway advocates extensive use of walking breaks for long runs. He suggests totals of up to several minutes per mile, with the breaks taking place several times per mile. Such a suggestion is, of course, alien to any self respecting runner. After all, running is running, not walking. What could be more obvious?
But Galloway is right. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it is possible to go both further and faster by taking breaks early and often in endurance events. As an added bonus, you feel a whole lot better at the end. Galloway cites examples of top athletes who practice subtle forms of this. Dave Scott, five time Ironman winner, promotes a related perspective of integrating a rest phase into each complete movement.
Although mentally difficult, integrating the breaks is easy from a practical perspective. In the final days of 1998, I decide to give Galloway's method a serious test. I select Smith's Switch Station, 14.5 miles from the house, as the turnaround point. Considering some of my recent long runs, I feel oddly confident as I head out the door for a 29 mile Galloway jog.
Each half mile, I walk for 15 to 20 seconds. It is hard not to start running again early; sometimes I manage; other times not. I keep a leisurely 9 minute pace, including the walking sections. The magic works. At 25 miles, I exceed my longest training run ever. At 26.2 miles, I surpass the marathon. I run farther than I ever have before. And I actually feel reasonably good, a novel sensation for me at these distances.
At the end I tire, to be sure, but I am still running close to 9 minute miles. I could run farther if I wished. I recover quickly. Prudence dictates that I take the next day off, even though I feel ready to run.
The marathon limits me no longer. In truth the marathon has never limited me. The limits have all been of my own making. I could easily have run a marathon or an ultra 20 years ago. At the time, I simply didn't understand that fact.
I think about the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club and their modest 45 mile Andiamo Trail Run, from Purcellville down the Washington and Old Dominion Trail to Arlington. I decide to run the race. I want to be ultraman. The hard part is that I have to wait until October.
Three weeks after my first Galloway run, I return to the trail. The goal is Ashburn, for a roundtrip total of 33 miles. I opt for a much slower pace, with walking breaks of at least 45 seconds each half mile. The final pace tallies out at 9:40, but again I feel as if I could keep going at the end. Traversing the length of the W&OD Trail seems more and more plausible.
The entire process is a balancing act: Will I make it or will I crack? The balance swings side to side moment by moment. It can go either way. That is where the fascination lies. Ibid.
By simply being in the the hallway at the wrong time, various colleagues learn of my forays into long distance running. They gently inquire about my sanity. More interesting is the trouble they have imagining a long distance run. They are sure it must be both painful and boring.
The first rule of pain is quite simple: If it hurts, don't do it. Pain is the body's way of explaining that whatever you are doing is doing damage. Continuing merely increases the damage, an especially likely outcome for those who choose to suppress pain with medication.
Although stopping is the correct response to a stimulus such as knee pain, different types of pain are, in fact, an integral part of training. Fitness increases via cycles of training, during which the body is broken down, alternating with rest, during which the body rebuilds itself. Pain is incurred in varying degrees in the training part of the cycle.
The body complains when asked to do more than it is used to. But to run faster, you need to train by running faster. And to run longer, you need to train by running longer. Interval training, during which you repeatedly bring your heart rate up to certain levels for certain distances or times, is effective at increasing speed, but it hurts. Likewise, distance training, during which you extend the distance of the long run, is effective at increasing range, but the last miles hurt. My response to, `Doesn't it hurt?' is `Yes, but I don't really mind.' Your mileage may vary.
Now for the question of boredom. If running were to start boring me, I would indeed have a problem. Why don't I get bored?
I think there are several reasons. There is, of course, that dirty little secret that all endurance athletes share: endorphins. My body usually produces my hit somewhere around the end of my second mile. The effects linger for several hours after the run. To my understanding, because the body produces endorphins in limited amounts, endorphin abuse is not physically possible. Frankly, I think there is a pretty strong case that the endorphin rush is essentially harmless. It is certainly far more benign than addictions to external agents such as caffeine or nicotine, not to mention controlled substances.
A different reason is the possibility of dissociative thinking, that is, thinking about something other than running. I often am quite productive on the trail; muddled problems clarify themselves, and I find myself making connections and decisions. Sitting in a chair and thinking about the same problems usually does not have the same effect. But dissociative thinking hardly requires multihour runs.
A third reason is simply that it is nice to be outside, even in nasty weather. I dislike extended training sessions inside a gym. Hours running on the trail pass quickly, but twenty minutes on a treadmill seem like a long time. I can lean on my aerobars for hours in comfort, but twenty minutes on a stationary bike is an eternity, due in part, no doubt, to bad seats and improper position. Can't exercise equipment manufacturers figure this out?
Back to the question of boredom: To glide through half lit morning mist, to watch deer graze along the trail, to hear geese clamor their way to breakfast, to glimpse the occasional fox or heron, to sprint for sheer fun, to escape suburbia for a brief time is not boredom, but tonic. Each road crossing reminds me that the driver is caged, but I am free. Just thinking about it, I can hardly wait to go back out.
Overall Rank: 53/145
Male Rank: 48/119
You may wish to visit the home page for the Washington Birthday Marathon.