I ran my fifth LA Marathon three days ago.
My first time attempting 26.2 miles as an actual registered runner was on March 20, 2011. I had been running with a group of veteran marathoners for a while and found myself more and more intrigued by it. The marathon is a difficult topic to avoid in the running world and is definitely met with respect. Even non-runners know that completing one is a long and arduous task, though they may not know the actual distance (“it’s like… 30 miles, right?”) I think there are a few different reasons the marathon is held in such high regard amongst runners:
1) The distance is tough on the body. The lower extremities take quite a beating during the marathon, enduring 55,000+ steps. Each step brings the weight of the body down onto the feet, which are comprised of small bones and miraculously bear all of this weight (then complain, a lot, later). The skin also takes a hit what with all of the friction and rubbing. Knees, hips, all of the bands and ligaments which hold us together, everything plays a role in moving our bodies from the start line to the finish line.
2) The distance is tough on the mind. The mind receives signals from a ton of proprioceptors (pain indicators) and asks the runner “WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THIS? STOP? KEEP GOING? THIS HURTS A LOT.” The runner, depending on how strong the mind is, either forges on or gives in. Receiving these signals, making the decisions, pushing through… this is all exhausting. Not to mention, every single part of the body starts to ache towards the end. Ignoring the plea to stop becomes more difficult with each passing mile. It becomes a true test of mental fortitude at this point and a strong mind is key. Scott Jurek once said that running long distances is 90% mental and 10% mental.
3). The training.There isn’t enough glycogen in the human body, ANY human body, to complete 26.2 miles. The body must resort to fat stores and this means training the body to switch over, as it doesn’t naturally happen (case-in-point, “The Wall”). This requires long and time-consuming runs. Time, dedication, and an immense amount of will power are called for in large quantities. And again, the body must become accustomed to a lot of impact for a long time, which also requires a good amount of training. Heck, even eating and drinking while in motion requires training.
I completed the 2011 LA Marathon in a complete downpour, but with a smile on my face and next to one of my best friends, in 3 hours and 21 minutes. I was well trained, optimistic, open-minded and had 0 expectations. My goal was to complete the distance and with a desire to run more marathons. I started the 2012 LA Marathon alongside my two favorite running partners, planning to complete it together, but they left me before the first mile marker to chase a BQ. I ended up running alone and surprised myself with a then-PR of 3:14. In 2013, I was injured and ran it for fun with a friend in 3:28. I completely shocked myself in 2014 with a seven minute personal record and my first sub 3:10, running a 3:07.
This course has always been good to me, except for this year. I started right behind the 3:15 pace group and ended up running with my co-worker and his friend. The pace felt good at some points, and hard at other points. I just couldn’t find my groove and was mentally doubting myself from the beginning. I would be dishonest if I claimed that the pace felt super easy, but it didn’t feel terribly difficult either. Miles 1-11 were with or near the group; miles 11-13 were when I started to slow down a little to preserve energy, but was still between 3:15 and 3:20. It was hot, but not too hot, and the sun hadn’t completed its morning warm up quite yet. I knew I’d see a friend at mile 19, so I continued on until that point.
To be completely honest, I just needed a break at mile 19. I needed a physical break and a mental break, so I stopped and chatted with John. He was waiting for a friend who was going for a 3:15-3:18 time and should’ve arrived before I did. I stood there for a few minutes and could’ve kept running, but I just wanted to check out. I watched the 3:25 pace group go by and saw a few friends on course. They looked confused as to why I was standing there, with my bib on, smiling, waving and not running. I wasn’t wrecked, but I was tired and my hips were gently letting me know that they wanted a rest. I decided to wait until John’s friend arrived and then run with the two of them. I desperately needed company, I was so mentally bored. I’ve run only a few marathons completely solo and I definitely run better when I have company for a majority of the miles. I ran 3:07 in 2014 whilst chatting for the first 15 miles, and ran my PR of 3:05 whilst chatting for 22 of the 26.2 miles! This isn’t to claim that I am in such good shape that I can just talk my way to a decent time, but I perform better when distracted. John, Derick and I ran and walked for 2-3 miles before I decided it was time to make my way toward the finish line. I took it easy during miles 21-22 and then gradually picked up the pace for the last 3 downhill miles. That 20+ minute break helped tremendously and I felt great coming down Ocean Boulevard toward the finish line. Could I have run a 3:20? I believe that I could’ve, but without feeling as fresh at the finish. Do I regret the break? Yes and no, but mostly yes.
On Monday, I ran 10 miles in the morning and reflected as to why I performed so poorly. I came up with a few possible reasons:
1) The injury that I dealt with in December-January really threw me for a loop. I feel like I lost a lot of fitness during that time and did not work as hard to get it back. I haven’t had a pain-free day in almost a year and am always fearful that one workout with bench me again. I know that the lack of workouts are a primary reason as to why I don’t run as well.
2) There were a few races that I did prior to LA last year: a 5K PR one week out and a 1:27 half marathon the day after that 5K. That is some fast running over two days, which set me up nicely for a marathon PR. I also ran my first 100 mile week going into LA and had zero 100 mile weeks this year. Lastly, a fast February 8K race was a key workout in 2014.
3) I did not have as many long runs under my belt as in 2014 and when I did run longer, they were very easy miles. I also did not do as many hill workouts. My running basically lacked quality.
4) Pre-race was really stressful. The start time was moved from 7:25 to 6:55am, which was great, but I didn’t factor in an earlier bag check closing time and an earlier seeded corral closing time. I arrived with ~5 minutes to get from the runner drop-off to bag check and sprinted my way through the throngs of people to get there. A sigh of relief was followed by a pang of anxiety as I heard Rudy announce that the seeded corrals would be closing in 15 minutes. The porta-potty lines were, expectedly, miles long, so I sprinted to a dark corner of the parking lot and begged a nearby security guard to let me sneak over and pee. One last sprint around the entire start line chute brought me to the jam-packed corral entrance. I was winded and sweaty before starting.
I would categorize myself as a recreational runner and don’t like to think of myself as competitive, but I am still disappointed in myself. I fully did not expect a major breakthrough race or a PR this weekend, but I did expect more of myself. It’s difficult to detach oneself from prior performances, especially when preparations to said performance differ so drastically. I also felt that more was expected of me from others, which I try to ignore. “He is a 3:xx marathoner” is a label you will often hear attached to a runner, and it creates pressure in having to maintain that reputation. Despite trying to ignore that pressure, I think it was there and it crushed me a little bit.
With all of that being said, there were so many good elements of the day. I was able to run 26.2 miles through Los Angeles. My friend and coaching client achieved a 6 minute personal record and felt fantastic for the entire race. I enjoyed a wonderful Puerto Rican brunch with a big group of friends in Venice. I enjoyed a nice chat, relaxation time and 7-11 cuisine with a good friend. I truly am grateful for what I am able to do as well as the community of runners that I am lucky enough to belong to.