It was almost the time for my first marathon to start. I’d been talking about running one for four and a half years, and now, finally, I had trained enough and avoided injuries, and I was ready to go. I leaned over to take off my sweat pants and was hit with an agonizing, paralyzing cramp in my left calf.
The pain made me drop to the ground, trying to somehow stretch out my calf. Another runner came by and pulled my toes back, telling me the cramp would go away and I would be fine. He was right that the cramp went away, but the pain lingered through the marathon and for the next week.
How typical. There are so many random things that can go right, or wrong, when you are preparing for a race. In the end, despite months of preparation, I ended up getting injured — while removing my sweats. It seems that there is always an element of luck that determines your fate in the marathon.
Why, people have asked me, did it take me four and a half years before I ran a marathon? Well, I got injured four times, two so-called overuse injuries (although overuse is obvious only in retrospect, when the injury suddenly appears) and two freak accidents. So I must have done something different this time, perhaps trained more sensibly?
Not really. I have the same coach, Tom Fleming, and he has always insisted that I run only every other day in order to minimize my chance of getting injured. And he has always increased my distances gradually and has always kept the speed work to a day or so a week.
I actually have no idea why I was able to train consistently this time, but since last May, when I healed from my final freak accident (I broke a bone in my foot when I stepped in a hole while I was running around a curve), I have been fine. It took a long time to build up distance and speed again. And even with all those months of training from May until March, the farthest I’d ever run before the marathon was 18.7 miles.
Then there is the question of what to eat during a marathon. Does it matter? I am not sure. I read the studies saying some carbohydrates are needed when you race that far, but I’d never eaten during a run or a race and almost never even drank water. I had this idea that I’d fill the back pocket of my shorts with packets of a sugary liquid that is sold to runners. These gels seemed easy to digest, and I wouldn’t have to chew them. But then I decided that the packets would be impossible to rip open during a race, so I slit them open the night before. Of course, it was then obvious that the stuff would leak out if I tried to carry it. I gave up and carried gel blocks, which were so hard to eat that I managed to get only a couple of them down.
The weather, of course, can make or break your race time. My friend Jen – who has run 38 marathons – suggested we run the one in Napa, California, because not only is it beautiful, it is likely to be an ideal temperature on race day, with a high in the low 50s. As it turned out, our race day was the hottest day of the week. When the race started, at 7 a.m., it was fine, with the temperature in the low 40s. When we finished, nearly four hours later, it was close to 70 degrees – way too hot.
If you want to race like the really good runners, I have discovered in reporting for my Personal Best column, you should focus on your running. Think about your stride and your effort, break the race into segments and concentrate on getting through each segment with good form and at your goal pace. Try to keep a steady pace or, even better, go faster toward the end.
“Runners are a different breed, highly motivated and never happy with the end results, because you know you can go faster.”
I couldn’t do it. Instead, Jen and I played a mental game that a good runner would not use. We pretended we were in our hometown, Princeton, New Jersey, running three 6-mile loops and one 8.5-mile loop on familiar roads. In my mind, I was not running past vineyards. I was on Prospect Avenue, crossing the street at Harrison. Now I was turning onto Roper Road. I never saw the scenery.
We had fun, and it all worked. My quadriceps hurt so much in the last four miles or so that I could barely lift my legs and I had to take walking breaks, but we ran across the finish line with smiles on our faces.
Would I have done better if I had not gotten that cramp? Maybe. Would I have done better if I had trained more and run farther than 18.7 miles? Probably. Would it have helped to eat something during the race? Probably. Would I have run faster on a cooler day? Maybe.
But then, who knows what other random things might have gone wrong.
As Tom told me, “running a marathon is a personal adventure for each individual — all different and yet all very much the same in the end.”
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Source: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)