Who is Ted?

I'm the father of two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife. For fun, I enjoy the long hours of seemingly endless suffering that endurance sports (mostly running, cycling and triathlon)provide. During my "down time" I'm an avid beer snob and self-described gourmet chef (in other words I like to burn things on a stove or grill).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Can you cross-train your way to a Marathon PR?

I’ve always considered myself a runner.  Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was introduced to the “sport” of running by my parents, who had been swept up in the jogging craze of the late 1970’s.  Along with my mom’s tattered old textbooks from college was a copy of The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx and many Saturday and Sunday neighborhood brunches took place after a local “fun run,” of 3 to 6 miles.  The adults, kicked back in their cotton race t-shirts acquired earlier in the day, would sip mimosas on the back deck.   Within a year or two, the kids started entering the races too. 
At the end of Junior High School, I joined the track team and was thrilled to have my own Bannister moment, breaking the seven,  and then the six minute barrier in the mile, on the cinder oval where we practiced each afternoon.  I continued to do fun runs in town, and completed my first Bolder Boulder in 1986.  In High School I ran cross-country and track, usually as one of the faster average runners, or slower fast runners depending on how you look at it. 
Going to school in Boulder introduced me to other sports and activities including Mountain Biking, but I always would find myself coming back to running.  After earning some extra money during my senior year, I treated myself to a new pair of running shoes, the first since my track days.  Soon I found myself running 10, 11, and 12 miles.  A few months after graduation, I signed up for my first half-marathon in Steamboat, Colorado.  Nervously, I began the race at a slow steady pace until the last 3 miles, when I surged with confidence knowing that I would be able to finish.  I crossed the line in about an hour and forty minutes.  And I kept running; some years more than others, but always doing the Bolder Boulder; all the way up to my first Marathon at the age of 29, just before the new millennium. 
Only a dozen years removed now from that marathon, I don’t really remember my motivation for racing.  I had done a few longer runs again, and I guess I just decided that I wanted to do one.  Through the advice of other runners, and the occasional Runner’s World, I pieced together enough information to come up with a training plan.  It consisted mostly of some shorter running during the week, followed by a weekly long run.  About a month before the race, I completed a twenty mile run in the mountains outside of Fort Collins.  I figured that if I could run that far at altitude, the marathon wouldn’t be a problem.  A couple of weeks later, I started my taper. 
It was a perfect, crisp, late September morning when the starting gun went off.  The half marathon runners started with us, and many friends were running that morning.  As we made our way along the dirt roads on the outskirts of Boulder, I utilized the same strategy as I had with my first half-marathon: Proceed slowly until you know you are able to finish.   Soon the eight mile mark came and went then nine, ten, etc.  Reaching the halfway point in the race, it seemed unusually desolate and quiet.  I felt like I was out on a long lone race as I passed the mark alone, well behind or ahead of other runners.  Looking down at my watch, I noted that I was just below two hours.  At 17 miles, the course turned off of the dirt and onto a highway for a mile or two.  On a slight hill, I began to pass other runners, my pace picking up.  Wow, I thought to myself, I really have this race nailed.  I’ll just pick up the pace for the remaining few miles.  I got faster, and faster, and kept passing more and more runners.  I complimented myself on my strategy to go out slow.  Now I was reaping the benefits, while the runners around me seemed to be slowing down further.
The “wall” at 20 miles, as it is known in Marathoning, is a perfectly descript term. Going full speed, I ran straight into it.  Suddenly, I went from visions of a 3:45 marathon, to a real concern as to whether or not I could even finish.  My pace slowed, my energy slumped, and now a steady parade of runners, young, old, skinny, fat, tall, short cruised past.  Soon an older man with a prosthetic leg came gliding past.   I had seen him several miles back and had thought to myself (naively), how brave he was for making the effort. What had happened?   I reached the aid station at mile 22, and was ready to surrender.  But there on the table was a bowl containing half dozen, sliced bananas.  Greedily, I grabbed a handful as I ran by, stuffing them into my mouth like some kind of crazed, exhausted gorilla.   A few minutes later, my energy started to return, but the wall had spooked me.   I sent my sights on a new, more realistic goal: finishing. 
A few weeks later, the five mile race I was in seemed so short and simple, for I had mastered the Marathon.  Through the winter, I continued to run (not as much), and in my head, I planned to run my second marathon in September.  Training with my wife over the summer, we eventually stretched our long weekend run to 16.  Then we stopped.  The reality of training, and having to deal with longer and longer runs had lost its appeal.  Another year passed, the family started growing, and it looked like one marathon would be enough.
In 2006, I began training for a marathon anew.  This time, I decided, would be different.  I would follow a real plan, and train intelligently.  My tome was Pfitzinger and Douglas’s Advanced Marathoning.  I poured over each chapter and visited the Runner’s World online forums daily for ideas, advice, and inspiration. The initial results were remarkable for me.  I was able to do 12 mile runs at a 7:00 minute pace.  My longer runs were slower, but I felt strong and healthy.  Slowly, my weekly mileage increased and before long, I was approaching 40 miles each week.  In early August, I went for my first 20 mile run.  Nothing fancy, just a slow and steady run along the bike path that shadows the river as it makes its way through town.  Turning around at 10 miles, my calf started bothering me.  Did I pull a muscle?  After another mile, the pain hadn’t subsided, and I called my wife for rescue.  A few days later, I ran again, and the pain came back right away.  The next couple of weeks were full of doctor’s visits, x-rays, new shoes, compression socks (the kind that old men wear, not the trendy, scientific, pairs that many runners don these days) and of course, reduced running.   But it was all to no avail.  It was never clear what the injury was, but even after two weeks of no running, I was no better.  The newly revamped Denver Marathon came and went without me.  I decided that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the distance. 
For the next several years, I directed my attention to other races.  Trail running was my new niche in running.  I loved the climbing, the descending, the technical footwork required to leap down from rocks, and between fallen trees and logs.    I entered a four-race series in Colorado Springs in the fall and while my times were slower, I was proud to have completed the series.  I chalked my reduced speed up to the fact that I was getting older.  I did most of my running and racing independently, getting up early to drive to Colorado Springs or Denver.
A couple of years ago, during the Christmas holiday, I decided that it might be fun to do a triathlon.  I bought a book called “Triathlete’s Guide to Finishing your First Triathlon”, read it in two sittings, and was hooked on the sport before I even had a bike.  For the next seven months I trained as much as I could, read everything I could get my hands on and prepared for the moment I could call myself a “triathlete.” I finished my first sprint triathlon (800 yd swim, 13.1 mile ride, 3.1 mile run) at the end of July and found that I had discovered the sport that was perfect for me.  I did another sprint in September, and set my sights on new events, and longer distances for the coming summer.  During this time, I noticed something about my running.  For one, I was running a lot less than I had before.  But at the same time, I was getting faster.  My Bolder Boulder times dropped by 6-7 minutes, and I even managed a sub 20 minute 5k in October.  It wasn’t like I was an elite runner or anything, but I started placing in my age group in some local races.  How ironic I thought, that by running less often, I was running so much better.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, the seed of an idea began to grow.
During this last summer, my training reached new heights, and I enjoyed triathlon training more than ever.  Nothing makes you feel like more of a badass than a brick workout.  Coming off the bike after 25-30 miles and heading out for a vigorous 10k was like nothing I had done before and I hadn’t seen anyone else around my town doing it either.  Even better, my brother had started training for his first triathlon.  Although we live a few hours apart, I now had a partner in crime.  My wife no longer had to listen to my boring litany of facts and details about my triathlon training, and it was great to get together with Paul and ride, train, and catch up.  Yes, he’s just as addicted as I am. Then, just prior to a vacation to Mexico, I discovered a book called Breakthrough Triathlon Training by Brad Kearns.  His emphasis on consistent, steady aerobic training brought me a whole new perspective on how to train for a longer distance.  I replaced my circa 1990 heart rate monitor, with a slightly newer model and started slowing down a little during my workouts and paying attention to my heart rate.  I stretched my bike rides to longer distances, riding 40, 50, even 60 miles at a stretch.  I definitely wasn’t any Ironman, but there was great satisfaction after returning from a two or three hour ride.  Occasionally, I would put in a longer run of 8-10 miles, as well.  A little over a year after my first triathlon, I completed my first Olympic Distance in 2 hours, 25 minutes.  It was a smaller race in Denver, but I managed to take 2nd in my age group, and 21st overall.  Now I was really having fun, and that idea that had been planted a year ago, burst forth.
My mind started to turn to the Marathon again.  Gee, I thought.  If I can maintain a low, aerobic heart rate over the course of a three hour bike ride, that really isn’t much less time than it would take to run a marathon.  Now granted, a three hour ride isn’t maybe as physically strenuous as a four hour run, but at least in terms of aerobic conditioning, it was comparable, provided that one didn’t try to run too fast.  I started to wonder if it would be possible to complete a marathon again, without the 40 mile weeks, and the accompanying stress on the body.  I decided to find out, and registered for a marathon 5 weeks away with a new hypothesis:
By taking advantage of my current aerobic base and emphasizing more swimming and biking, coupled with a weekly long run, I could run a marathon in less time than I did a dozen years ago.  Given that there were no more than 35 days until the Labor Day event, I wouldn’t include much of a taper, either.  My training program (below) was premised on the idea of cross training with a moderate increase in running frequency.  I wanted to include a weekly long run, so that I would be able to gauge how well the swimming and biking were supporting my goal:

Swim 600m
Run 6.4 miles

Ride: 34 miles

Run 12.2 miles
Swim 1300m
Bike 7.5 miles

Run 7.2 miles

Run 15.2 miles

Bike 60 miles

Swim 1500m

Run 20.3 miles

Bike 13.8 miles

Run 3.1 miles

Swim 4400m

Race Day

Rather than averaging 40 mile weeks, my total running mileage leading up to the Marathon would be about 70 miles or approximately 14 miles a week. 
In my initial planning, my goal was to include one additional long run the weekend before the race of around 15 miles at a slightly faster pace.  However, after my 20 mile long run, I began to notice a little bit of pain just above and below the right knee on the interior side.  Not wanting to run myself to injury, I backed off of the longer run, and planned to “taper” with only a short run leading up to the race. 
On Labor Day, 2011 I awoke at 3:00 in the morning, dressed, and drove north to Colorado Springs.  Parking downtown, I met up with another runner, and we walked the half mile over to the finishing area, where we boarded a bus headed north for the start.  The weather in Palmer was considerably colder at that hour, and I was thankful that I’d brought a big sweatshirt, and hat.  I pulled my legs up inside my sweatshirt and waited a very ninety minutes for the start of the race.
At 6:30, the race began, and while it was cool, there was a nervous excitement amongst the runners.  I believe that the marathon, as much as it is a physical endeavor, is equally a psychological one.  I felt confident that I would finish, but there is always a little bit of doubt, lingering just under the surface.  I’m not sure why this is the case, but there are too many stories of folks who have done all of the physical training, only to have something go askew in their minds during the race.  You can train and be ready for a marathon, but there are no guarantees that you will finish.
 I positioned myself near the four hour pace group.  My plan was to run with them through the whole race, and if I felt strong enough, I would push at the end, and get below four hours.  This strategy seemed to be working just fine through the first few miles.  I stayed with the group, and didn’t really feel like we were pushing too hard.  The marathon was run on the Old Santa Fe trail, and it was a nice mellow downhill, all the way toward downtown.  At about five miles, I was really feeling fantastic and I kept reminding myself to slow down, and stay near the pace group.  As the run went on, this kept getting harder and harder to do.  I started thinking to myself that maybe I was in better condition than I thought, and I could run well below the four hour mark.  After all, I’d finished the 10K in the triathlon in about 45 minutes. 
The next thing I knew, I’d begun to pick up the pace.  By the time I reached the halfway point, I was at about 1 hour and 50 minutes.  I knew I’d slow down eventually, but I decided to keep run as strong as I could and bank as many minutes as I could.  It was a good thing that I did. 
When I reached the 18 mile mark, my legs started to feel a little heavier, and my hips started to hurt.  Aerobically speaking however, I felt just fine.  It seemed like I was expending the same amount of energy, but it kept taking longer to reach the next mile marker.  Also, the course moved from dirt to concrete, which didn’t help matters at all.  I kept eyeing my watch, trying to determine if I was still on pace.  A 3:50 marathon seemed like it was in reach, but after a few more miles, it looked like it would be a little longer.  I soon realized that breaking four hours would take everything I had, and it wouldn’t even be close to easy.
The last four miles of the marathon were agonizing.  I kept trying to loosen up and vary my stride, as the repetitive movement of the last three and a half hours was causing me to tighten up.  My hips and pelvis were the worst.  I would speed up for a little bit, and this would help somewhat, but eventually I would falter, and the steady rhythm of a slower pace would bring the pain with it. 
Post Race with my support team (Melisa not pictured)
At mile 25 I looked down at my watch.  It read 3:48:25, and I began to calculate what it would take to reach the finish line in less than four hours.  I knew that my pace had to have slowed to somewhere between ten and eleven minutes, so I was certain that if I was going to make it, I would have to move a little faster.  The last part of the course took us back across the river, which made me feel like we were getting further from the finish instead of closer.  I entered America the Beautiful Park at about 3:57:00, and I made my way around the perimeter and finally, to the finish.  My time: 3:59:06.  I had set a new personal record, and I’d broken four hours, guaranteeing that if I didn’t ever want to do another marathon, I didn’t have to!
Looking back now, I’m aware that trying to “bank” a bunch of minutes, and then hold on at the end, probably wasn’t the smartest race strategy, but it still worked for me.  More importantly however, my theory that using triathlon training as a springboard for the marathon was a viable strategy.  Although more miles on my feet would have likely  helped with some of the fatigue in my legs and hips, I entered the race a lot less beat up than I might have been if I’d run more.   I doubt this approach would work if I my goal was to keep improving my time in the marathon, but the truth is, that isn’t really my goal.  As we approach the latter part of winter, I’m preparing for the coming year, and training for more triathlons.  I like the balance that multisport provides, but I have signed up for another marathon.  This time I’m looking at it from a different perspective with a new goal in mind.  Can I use the marathon to springboard into training for a summer of triathlons?  I think it makes sense in terms of building an aerobic base.  This time, rather than trying to run faster, I plan on trying to run slower.  I’m shooting for a race somewhere between 4:30-5:00 hours.  I figure that if I can run for that long, completing a half-ironman should be much easier.  We’ll see how that pans out!

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