Last fall, I ran my first marathon. It was amazing, hard, interesting, challenging, fascinating. I loved training for it and I loved running it. I especially loved the incredible support I got from family and friends along the way. I loved discovering that it was possible for me (me!) to run 26.2 miles. I loved almost everything about it.
Except my time. I finished in 5 hours 26 minutes. I realize that that is not terrible. I wrestled with this for several weeks after the race and I eventually accepted that this is perfectly respectable for a first-time attempt at a marathon. I had said all along that my goal was to finish and I did finish. But boy did that time grate on me. Part of the problem was that I knew I could run a faster marathon, potentially quite a bit faster. I had horrible cramping in my hips starting at around mile 9 or 10 and that slowed me down a lot. My predicted race time based on other races I’d run was a good deal faster. Anyway, obviously this still bugs me.
I spent some time in those weeks post-marathon trying to figure out what had gone wrong and what I could do better the next time around. I knew almost immediately upon finishing that I would run another marathon. In fact, I would have run another one last fall if I hadn’t thought that was a crazy idea that would possibly lead to injury. Instead, I spent the weeks after the marathon reading a lot, thinking a lot, and trying to figure out what to do differently. There are some other, smaller adjustments I would make (not taper so long, for example), but I wanted to make some more significant changes as well. Here is what I came up with:
- More speed work. “Speed work” is just runner jargon for running faster. There are lots of ways to do it and I am still learning about them. But, for marathon #1, the training plan I used didn’t have a lot of speed work and a lot of the time I just ditched it and covered all the miles at the same pace. I had a lot of reasons for this. I got some Achilles tendonitis partway through training and my physical therapist recommended not running fast. It was summer and hot. I have very little natural inclination to run fast and I had no one to push me. So, the small amount of speed work in the training program I was using quickly became no speed work at all.
- Start strength training. I have certainly read enough about running to know that strength training is important. I even had a couple of short routines I did at home that a friend recommended. Even more surprisingly, I actually did these routines often enough to get better at them. Still, it wasn’t a lot. One of my theories about the hip cramping is that it came from muscle fatigue so I was committed to getting stronger.
- Lose weight. I am not significantly overweight. Most people would say I am not overweight at all. But I have a little extra around the middle and I know that carrying less weight can make you faster. This only makes sense. If I had to carry a 10 pound backpack every time I ran, I would be slower. A rule of thumb is that you can run 2 seconds per mile faster per pound lost. So, losing 10 pounds would potentially improve my time by nearly nine minutes.
Here’s what I’ve done to address these three points and how it’s going.
- Last time around I used the Finish It plan from Train Like A Mother. I love the Another Mother Runner folks and I had excellent luck with their Own In plan for the half marathon. I had not been someone who liked the idea of a training plan, yet theirs seemed manageable. I’m happy I did this for my first marathon because given my personality, other plans might have seemed overwhelming. My number one criterion the first time was that the plan allow me to continue my beloved trail runs with friends most Tuesdays. We run five miles. We don’t worry about pace. This plan fit well with that so I went with it.
For the second attempt at the marathon, I wanted something more serious. By now, though, I had some other ideas about what such a plan should look like. First, I really only wanted to run four days a week. I worry about getting injured and I know I can sustain four days a week safely. Second, weekly mileage on the Finish It plan topped out around 37 miles, but it was only that high one week. I found that I really liked running that many miles a week and even more would have been ok. I looked into some of the well-known plans (Galloway, Hansons, Hal Higdon, Jack Daniels) yet none of them seemed quite right. Then a friend in my online group mentioned that he used the SmartCoach plan from Runner’s World. A really fast friend. With SmartCoach, you plug in a recent race time and distance as well as some other information and it spits out a plan “tailor made” for you. The one it gave me looked challenging, but manageable. It had me running four days a week. It didn’t involve anything like changing pace six times in a run. Bonus: it had a ton of five mile runs at an easy pace, perfect social runs for me. Double bonus: SmartCoach plans are free!
And yes, the SmartCoach plan has actual speed work. And even paces prescribed for the easy runs. But it looked manageable. And I’ve been able to do the fast runs. So far, so good.
- Strength training has turned out to be a bonanza. Early efforts to convince my friend Mistress of Martinis and Mischief (Triple M) that she should let me glom onto her in the weight room at the YMCA went nowhere. She might as well have said “I vant to train alone” in her best Greta Garbo imitation. The times for classes at the YMCA were also terrible for me and the classes did not look interesting. Triple M had another tip though – a local guy, let’s call him Tough Guy, had started his own gym a few years ago and the place looked pretty serious. Called “Innovative Fitness,” the website was terrible, but they seemed to get results. Plus, they were having a sale! My friend Snarky Girl was game to go check it out so we headed over and tried a class that they call “Primal Circuits” but which we have shortened to circuits. We joined immediately. At the advice of the fast friend who recommended SmartCoach, I also hired a personal trainer (Easy Going Trainer, not Tough Guy. Because I want to have fun and I am not insane). Joining the gym turned out to be a completely brilliant move. The circuits class is insanely fun. I convinced a bunch of running friends to join and we started going as often as three times a week. Circuits is a mix of cardio and strength training and it’s hard. Yet, weirdly, I didn’t mind being one of the worst in the class and I generally felt great afterwards. After a few weeks, I could keep up much better. Because so many of us joined together, there’s always a friend there, even on the rare occasion that I neglect to coordinate what we’re doing that week.
Hiring Easy Going Trainer has also been awesome. I have tried lifting weights a few times before, but the weight room is really intimidating, especially to women. I pretty much stuck to machines, just did a few random things, and left. Now I have an expert helping me learn what to do and it’s much better. It’s also much harder, but way more fun. I had no idea weight lifting could be fun, but it’s a blast! I would do it more if I had time. So point number two, so far, so great.
- Losing weight has been the hardest piece of this by far. I have lost around five pounds since early November. I’ve been tracking what I eat using myfitnesspal.com. I don’t record everything there every day, but I’m pretty reliable with it. After talking with Easy Going Trainer and doing some reading, I also decided to start eating more protein. I’m a vegetarian and I have a pretty healthy diet. I don’t eat a lot of processed foods, I don’t eat a lot of sweets, I don’t eat tons of potato chips. That’s one reason losing weight is hard. Not to say my diet is perfect, but there’s nothing obvious like, stop eating donuts every day. The protein idea came from Easy Going Trainer, but was reinforced by nearly everything I read. I started drinking a protein shake after most workouts. This seemed incredibly bizarre at first, but now I like it. And, it seems to be working. It’s very slow, but I’m losing weight. I’m 6 pounds lighter than I was on marathon day. Point number three, slow and steady wins the race?