Monday, September 28, 2009

Listening to your body

I consider myself a rational person. No touchy-feely spiritual mumbo-jumbo for me, thanks very much. The universe is just a random series of events, of which I am a conscious participant and fortunate to be so. So when I hear the all-too-common phrase "everything happens for a reason," I just shake my head and smile. Coincidence is coincidence; nothing more, nothing less.

So when I broke my foot early this summer, though that phrase might have passed fleetingly through my mind in a moment of weakness, in response to my intense disappointment at having to stop training toward a marathon, I never really believed that there was any rhyme or reason behind my stepping on that rock. It just happened. Deal with the consequences, learn from it, move on.

The latest obstacle is much less dramatic than a foot fracture: I merely caught a cold. But when your training schedule is as tight as mine, there's no room for error, and missing out on almost a week of training has pretty much put the kibosh on any hope I had of achieving the kind of shape required to run a marathon in three weeks' time. I suppose I could still register and just walk part of it, but I want my first marathon to be a good experience, something I can look back on with pride and accomplishment.

I wouldn't be human if this second hurdle preventing me from reaching my marathon goal this year didn't send me reaching for that old security blanket phrase again. But even I must admit that there may well have been a reason for my catching this cold--a perfectly rational reason, in fact: I'm pushing my body too hard.

For an athlete, pushing your body is almost the raison d'être of training in the first place, so it's extremely hard to hear and listen to--let alone accept it--when your body tells you that it has limits. So often have we heard the phrase "no pain no gain" that to give in to the pain, to stop running when your body just wants to lie down by the side of the road and sink into the dirt, is somewhat anathema to the philosophy of running. This is what running a marathon is all about, right? To push yourself beyond what you ever thought your limits would be. Even at the most basic level, part of the pleasure of running is pushing yourself.

But there are limits and then there are limits. Training for a marathon in two months was, by most people's standards, a pretty crazy goal. I knew I was pushing the envelope when I set it. I told myself that I'd give it my best shot but that if I failed, I wouldn't be too hard on myself. The 26k run last weekend was hard, but I thought I recovered pretty well from it. I ran a solid 6k the next day and an excellent 12k last Wednesday. But that evening I started feeling a little raw in the throat. By Thursday evening, I was feeling pretty shitty, and Friday was even worse. No doubt about it; my body was sending me a message.

So this past weekend's planned 30k didn't happen. At best, I might have postponed it for a week, which would then have had me doing a 34k long run the week before the marathon. And that, to me, is simply too close for comfort. If my body was so badly stressed after 26k that I caught a cold. What might happen after 30 or 34k, let alone a marathon?

Which is not to say I don't think I'll ever be able to handle that distance, but I recognize more clearly now than ever that, especially at my age, I have to build up to it more gradually. Going from 0 to 42k in two months just isn't feasible for me.

In his book ChiRunning, Danny Dreyer talks about what he calls "body sensing" and often talks about listening to your body. And while I don't think I was actually over-training, I'm pretty sure that my body was reaching the limits of what it could do, even if it didn't really seem that way.

Am I disappointed that I won't be running a marathon this year? Sure. But as a wise friend of ours once told us, when you're faced with a difficult decision, a good way to figure out if you're making the right choice is to "try it on" for a few days. In other words, make a decision one way or another, with the option to back out if you want to. In my case, I mentally made the decision to not run the Toronto Marathon this year. To my surprise, what I felt most was not disappointment but relief.

So I'm pretty sure I made the right decision.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And now the real running begins

Today my marathon training entered a new phase: the pain.

Last week was the Montreal Marathon and, as part of my marathon training, I ran the half-marathon. I was determined to take it easy and integrate the race into my training regimen, rather than treat it like a normal race. The reason for this reasonableness is that with only five weeks to the Toronto Marathon, I couldn't afford to take 4 days off recovering from a race (which is my normal routine). So I promised myself I wouldn't focus on pace during the race and keep my heart rate in the 155 range. I was aiming for a time of 1:45, which I figured was a good compromise between a decent race pace and a slow-run pace. Of course, when it came time to turn on my Garmin 305 at race time, I realized I had stupidly forgot to charge it. Like it or not, I was running "free," that is, without any toys, just like the pre-humans did on the savannahs of Africa.

So I took it out easy and tried to keep a steady pace. And lo and behold, near the end of the race, I found myself having a fair bit of gas left for a good kick over the last 1.5 kilometres and a furious sprint to the finish. My final time: 1:44:50. I must say I was pretty happy that I managed to judge my pace just right and that I had a good finish, especially considering the fact I had only been training for a month. So while it was my slowest half-marathon result ever, it was in some ways the most satisfying of all.

But that was last week. This week it was back to the regular training grind with a planned long run today of 26 km. I was nervous before today's long run because I have never run over 25 km before, and no more than 21 this year, so I wasn't sure how my body would react.

The run started pretty well and I felt good up to about 15k. But by 19k I was struggling. I suppose the dinner party we had last night, during which I imbibed my fair share of wine, didn't really help the endurance side of things. But in the end, I managed to complete the distance, and with a respectable slow-run pace of 5'30"/km.  I was very happy to stop but the good news is that my foot, shins and knees all held up well. I really tried to focus on the ChiRunning techniques, and I think that stood me in good stead. But I'd be sugar coating things if I said it wasn't a really hard run.

Next week, the long run will hopefully be 30k, which is getting into the realm of the dreaded "wall." More uncharted territory and cause for nervousness. But I guess that's the whole point of trying to run a marathon, right? At any rate, I think I'll skip the wine with dinner the night before.