If the marathon was an exam, up until yesterday I would pretty much have scored an F. Like the Italian figure skater Carolina Kostner at the Olympics, in my own (albeit small-potatoes) way, I would prepare, prepare, prepare, then the big day would come and it was little short of disaster. All I have to say about that is, sister, ain’t redemption sweet.
Perhaps my former tales of woe will be helpful to some readers, so I’m going to elaborate with a list of what not to do. Thus, if you wish to have a miserable marathon experience, I suggest you train your butt off and then sabotage all your efforts with the following:
- Don’t carbo load properly. If you think carbo loading means eating an extra bagel and a handful of jelly beans or a donut, think again. Carbo loading for the marathon is serious business and can make or break your race. Research on this issue suggests that ingesting 7-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilo of body weight in each of the days leading up to the marathon is about right. That’s waaaaay more than most people think. Moreover, in my experience, what you eat makes a difference too. I tried stuffing myself with carbs before previous marathons, but found the process so disgusting that I quickly gave up and went back to normal eating, meaning I basically failed to carbo load at all. Even stepping it down a notch and simply being more mindful of eating extra carbs in the marathon lead-up left me feeling like a bloated slug since I normally don’t eat a lot of carbs. At my last (trail) marathon, in which I somehow came in second after a difficult race, I won some pretty cool stuff, including a product called Carbo-Pro. You should know that I have no affiliation with the company whatsoever and was dubious about its usefulness in my life until I tried it. It dissolves in water, is practically tasteless, gluten-, preservative-, color-, dairy-, soy-, and sweetener-free and packs 50g of carbs per 2 scoops. It’s made of GMO-free rice and corn. It doesn’t leave me feeling bloated or full and I simply added it to water and drank two or three times a day for about four days leading up to the Napa Valley Marathon. It worked beautifully.
- Take gels you know can mess up your stomach. In case you think, duh, who would do that, consider that I didn’t know there were gels on the market that wouldn’t mess up my stomach. I thought it was normal for a certain sub-set of runners to suffer stomach issues when racing, that I was one of the unlucky ones and that the way forward was to train my body to accept said gels (which, incidentally, never happened). Then I tried ViFuel gels. Again, I have no affiliation with the company, although, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my coaches does and he recommended the product to me, thinking its unique formulation might help. No matter how I came to hear about it, I’m just thrilled that I found something that works. I feel so confident about their compatibility with by insanely picky stomach that in a pinch I will even take them without water, a concept that previously would have left me horror-stricken.
- Take gels and sports drink at the same time even though you have never practiced this before race day. Enough said. Just don’t do it.
- Be anemic. This’ll screw up your race (and your life!) but good, every time. Simply follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet, ramp up your weekly mileage and then never get your iron levels checked. The complete and utter exhaustion that sends your dragging bones to bed at 7:30pm, makes a 9:00 minute pace feel as hard as a 7:00 pace used to feel and sucks all of the joy and motivation out of running? It might be overtraining . . . or it might be anemia. Get a bloodtest. (P.S. On a serious note, don’t take iron supplements without consulting a doctor and getting your ferritin level checked first because it can literally kill you — especially true for men).
This time, when marathon race day arrived, it seems I finally got it about right. I was carbo loaded, gel ready and had recent blood test results in hand showing everything was normal. The bad news? Race reports about races that went really well tend to be a tad yawn-inducing, so I’ll keep the rest of this one brief.
My coaches helped me to formulate a race plan based on recent performances. Since they’ve only been on board for less than a month, there was little they could do to make me faster in the remaining time until race day. Instead, we focused on building a plan that was conservative but aligned with my fitness. Given my previous marathon performances, I was in sore need of a confidence booster at the distance, and a conservative race was more important than taking a more aggressive and risky approach.
Race morning dawned overcast and cloudy but pleasantly warm (50’s) and dry. It did start drizzling about an hour into the race, but I found this refreshing more than a hindrance. The course is fairly winding, rolling, and in places cantilevered for the first half or so of the race. Since the road is completely closed for this section, it made for a lot of wandering back and forth across the lanes to try to run tangential lines as much as possible. On the other hand, the rolling hills were very gentle and the course had quite a bit of downhill, so I think this made up for the inevitable ‘long course’ from failing to precisely run the tangents. Also, the curves and changing elevation made the course interesting in addition to being scenic and it wasn’t until I reached a fairly expansive straight and flat section around mile 18 that these pleasant distractions gave way to the need to focus to maintain pace.
In terms of the event itself, the race is well organized and had some unique aspects that I had not, in my limited experience, seen before. Hot showers at the finish line, a personal and friendly escort from the finish line to the photographer and then out to the spectator meeting area, and my hands-down favorite, the ability for any runner to place their drink in a ‘special drinks’ bucket which was transported to the racer-specified water station for pick up during the race. I thought this might not work out in practice given the number of runners but it turned out to be seamless since few runners took advantage of it (which makes me think I probably shouldn’t be advertising it!). On the downside, there were not anywhere near enough porta-potties at the start. After waiting twenty minutes in line with little forward progress and having to skip my warm-up as a result, I dipped behind the row for relief with just minutes to go until the start. This served one purpose (if you know what I mean) but left my stomach cramped and uncomfortable for the first eight miles of the race as my body adjusted to the fact that no, um, secondary relief would be forthcoming. Some might also consider the lack of pace groups as a downside too. There were none, but it didn’t bother me. Everyone just had to run their own race.
I stuck closely to the race plan, though dialing the prescribed pace up just a hair as the race progressed since I felt good and it felt surprisingly easy. The day played out pretty much perfectly, with me running almost dead-even halves (1:32:58 to 1:33:05). I finished in 3:06:03, good for a morale-boosting 8th place in this Road Runners Association of America (RRAA) National Marathon Championship Race. There was no wall-hitting, no stomach-turning, just simple, even pacing. The fact that I’m barely sore on this day after the race is a touch bothersome, since it leaves me wondering, what if I had just run a little harder? To have done so, however, would have been a huge gamble and it was so important that I left the race feeling positive. Of note is that the success of the race has left me seriously hungry for more. Sub-three is tantalizingly close, but I’m setting my sights well beyond that.
Napa Valley Marathon, I will be back in 2015.
Watch out, ladies!