Last week, as I stared at the final pieces of pie waiting on their respective tins, I contemplated a pie of different sort: a chart that might explain how I ran the Philadelphia Marathon a full 33 minutes faster than I had run Boston, only six months earlier.
Here’s what I came up with and why.
Inside The Legend
Don’t Wait 20 Years Before Boston in 2022, my previous marathon was New York in 2002. MAAAAYBEEE I waited a little too long.
I think waiting six months, like I did between Boston and Philly, was much better for results–irrespective of the 20 years of straight up aging and depreciation. First of all, there is a certain slow accumulation of stamina that builds up as you train at longer distance. This is not an infinite curve (you don’t keep getting faster forever) but early in the learning curve as you train, you tend to gain multiple capacities at once: grasping the fundamental logistics of how to do this, overall endurance and strength, and the numbing stupidity to keep going long distances when you are losing it. As in life, the retention of knowledge and the strength are somewhat fleeting–six months is good– whereas the stupidity can last a lifetime, so #keepGOING.
Train Differently I’m big on mixing things up. I rarely run the same route twice. But this time, I mixed things up in a more radical way– instead of following a traditional race training plan that specified how many miles to run each day, I shifted to a plan that emphasized total minutes run at a specific pace. The plan, summarized here, was provided by Olympic marathoner Jared Ward, who, coincidentally was present at the finish line to present me my medal, along with Bart Yasso (spellcheck keeps wanting to change his name to Lasso, which also seems appropriate) the man who got me into my first marathon in 1991.
I really had no idea how much I needed that coaching on varying paces to run throughout the weeks. I’ve never been a watch-watcher (when I’m not training I rarely even run with one) so I was a little leery. But by hitting different pace goals (for speed repeats, tempo runs, power repeats, and long runs, see link in caption below for details) I was brought back to the urgency of my track and field days, when time meant everything.
The objective measure of time also allowed me to believe I could go much faster for longer than I realized. In fact, I ended up adopting the training pace regimen for a 4:30 marathon, which was a ridiculous reach, considering my Boston was clocked at 5:13. I would have been thrilled to just break 5 in Philadelphia– and yet, I comfortably crossed the line at 4:40, well beyond my expectations and, age-graded, the fastest marathon of my life.
Eat, Drink, and Be Salty One of my lasting memories of Boston was stumbling into the medical tent, still queasy and unable to get myself home more than 30 minutes after the race. Within 3 minutes after the nurse gave me medicine, I was as good as new. Her miracle cure? A fun-size bag of potato chips. Crunch, crunch, crazy.
A few days before Philly, I finally did the research on why those chips worked so well to restore my balance. Based on the research I could find, I needed to get about 500mg/hour of sodium per hour of exercise. Yet I had consumed only about one-third of that. And once I had become queasy from lack of sodium/electrolytes, I had avoided taking more — the exact opposite of what I needed to be doing.
So I grabbed my Clif gels, Clif Blocks, and SaltStik nutrition labels and calculated how I could take in 2500 mg during the race, since I wasn’t at any particular risk for overdoing it and exacerbating hypertension. I also didn’t carry a water bottle (I may have been sipping too much in Boston, at the expense of my nutrition) and instead, hit almost every water stop and most of the Gatorade tables. Bingo. I never hit the sodium wall and didn’t need the potato chip cure after the race.
Walk, Run, and Be Amby After Boston, I received a message from a long-time friend who was 15 years older than me yet finished 15 minutes ahead of me. His secret? He adopted a run/walk technique that he learned from one of his former roommates.
Normally, I would brush off advice like that from an old-timer– I kinda knew what I was doing. But when the long-time friend is Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, and his former roommate is best-selling author Jeff Galloway who literally wrote the book on The Run Walk Method , you listen. I started to play with this concept during my training. It took me a while to settle in on an interval that worked for me– but once I did, it left me much fresher at the end of my long runs. This was a game changer on raceday. It makes a huge difference to plan for your walks and take them BEFORE you “need” them, rather than just start walking when you are gassed (and it’s too late to really regain your stamina.) I ended up doing this regularly (if not religiously) during the marathon. I ran the first 6 or so miles walking a few steps at the water stops. Then slipped into my favored pattern: running 10 minutes and walking 30 seconds. I think it helped my time–I ended up well ahead of almost all the runners who passed me while I was walking– and I know it helped my frame of mind. (Find Run Healthy, Run Long, Amby’s training newsletter featuring nutrition, science, and injury prevention HERE)
Look, Cheer, and Be Chatty Another unsettling Boston memory was the feeling from running alongside so many other struggling runners at the back of the pack, yet not commiserating with them for mutual support. At Philly, I tested my theory that perhaps by engaging some, I would help put myself at ease and run happier. I think it worked, too. In addition to frequently pulling up beside a runner going at my pace and starting small talk, I took advantage of the most under appreciated feature of good marathon course design: the switchback/out-and-back.
Some may say it looks ugly on paper, having the course double back on itself. The other marathons I’d run (Boston and NYC) have classic designs that eschew this kind of map. But as a runner, I loved it. From 9 mile on, the mid-pack runners like me were facing faster (and later in the race, slower) runners who were on the other side of the out-and-back. I found myself not only admiring their form and resolve as they ran, but shouting out their names printed on their bibs to encourage them and boost my own spirits. It felt like stepping out of the solitary confinement of my own prolonged misery that is marathoning.
Good Beet and You Can Run To It Maybe you recognize the catchphrase of Rate-A-Record on American Bandstand, which was filmed not far from the Philadelphia marathon course at Studio B, 46th and Market, until 1964.
But this beat is run to the root vegetable. I had come across some research that indicated beet juice could be an elixir to help endurance athletes, so I loaded up on eating beets and drinking beet juice in the days leading up to the race.
A Series of Fortunate Decisions So many little details go into raceday, it’s a bit mind-boggling for an obsessive planner like me. I felt like I didn’t have much margin for error if I wanted to run fast and happy. I think having run another marathon six months earlier gave me enough relevant experience to get alot more things right this time around. I also incorporated the Cinquino Progression, what some call the most effective tactics for optimal layering in running. I created this winter protocol from decades of cold weather running my native habitat between Buffalo’s Lake Erie and Rochester’s Lake Ontario.
A lot of other little things built up. Moves like the late addition of a running vest that stored my expanded gel collection while protecting my nipples from the biting wind, picking the right gloves, remembering the Buff balaclava that my daughter had given me last winter, running into a friend who reminded me about the compression socks I had worn in Boston and which would serve me well on this cold day in Philly, registering with the American Association for Cancer Research’s Runners for Research to give me motivation as well as a place to gather before and after the race, reliable and enthusiastic race support from a beloved friend, and perhaps most of all (? see below) the trip to the thrift store for throwaway clothes to wear (and pray with) at the start.
Don’t Get Covid Two weeks before my Boston Marathon in April, after a (mostly) lovely trip to Florida, I tested positive for Covid-19.
I had all my shots and booster, so the effects were not life-threatening. But having a respiratory virus before I was about to run the longest distance I’d run in 20 years could not have helped.
I was even very faintly testing positive with the at-home swab the day before the race. This time around, I could have a normal taper and not have the added worry about a sore throat and my lung capacity being compromised.
Eat (PB&J), Pray, Run It’s 7:10 am Sunday, in view of the Art Museum, iconic for reasons not having to do with its collection.
In 29 degree semi-darkness, I find myself waiting in the Orange corral before the race, with other nervously shaking (or shivering?) runners hoping to maybe break the 5-hour mark.
Just like lying awake in bed after a restless night waiting for my alarm to go off, I find these final minutes waiting for the starting gun to go off are starting to be filled with doubt, fear, anxiety, and a general what-the-fuckery that often cloud my mind and keep me from savoring and appreciating the incredible opportunities ahead of me.
Do I even belong here? Did I prepare enough? Are these shorts going to chafe? I should have eaten more of that PB&J sandwich. I have to pee. I’m going to screw up and go out too fast again. Tighten those shoelaces for the 7th time. They still seem loose. Everyone is talking about the wind on Kelly Drive. How bad is it going to be at the end? Am I really going to be able to keep it together today?
With all these emotions rage-swirling my mind, I hear a horn and see the corral in front of my group go off into the morning sun. We are beckoned to move up into position at to be next in line. I’ll be fine. Totally fine. Right?
Three minutes to go. I have already removed and tossed aside the oversized sweatpants and cotton hoodie that I had picked up at the thrift store the day before. I now slip out of the fleece overcoat that is my final layer of protection, and before I toss it, I make sure I didn’t put anything in the pockets. But wait. What’s this?
Rosary beads??! Made in Italy!?!
While I didn’t need to carry any extra weight for 26.2 miles, but there is no way I was going to throw away found rosary beads one minute to go before the race. I may be missing mass this morning (again), but in an instant as I clutch and relive the familiar feeling as the beads fall through my fingers, I instantly feel the full embrace of the countless Sunday mornings and family time spent in and around church and Catholic school.
And a little bit of my parents stays there with me, reaching down to me in the city where my father’s immigrant parents first settled after their passage from the old country, assuring me it would be ok.
I squeeze them once more, extracting every morsel of whatever divine powers they may bring me today, then slip them into the right front pocket of my running tights.
I no longer worry about the wind on Kelly Drive. I know it will be at my back.