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Lessons from the Houston Marathon

Some of you may know that we recently returned from a visit to Houston to watch the Olympic Trials Marathon on Saturday and then compete in the Houston Marathon on Sunday.  My race was a mixed bag, with the pendulum swinging from glorious to gut wrenching in a matter of a few miles, though based on the events of 2011, I really can't complain about my result.  Fortunately, every event offer opportunities for growth, and this weekend was no exception.  Below is a list of a few lessons that I am able to draw from the race... 

1)  Sleep is underrated

Those that know me well know that the past couple years have been an exercise in testing the limits of sleep deprivation.  Those that know me REALLY well know that I come from a family in which who could get up the earliest on vacation at the beach to get the paper was a form of accepted competition....

I probably won't get much sympathy from the newborn parent crowd (not that I am asking for any!), but while I try to set a positive example for our athletes, sleep habits are one area in which my behavior is not to be emulated.  During college, high school, and grad school, my youthful machimsmo took pride in being able to get a lot done with minimal sleep and zero caffeine (I still am caffeine free, though).  Now, I realize that sleep deprivation just sucks, even though it is sometimes necessary to fulfill the professional goals that I have set for myself.  We normally don't think of improving overall life efficiency as a component of training, but it is undoubtedly a force multiplier when it enables for more sleep to occur.  No doubt that I would have absorbed the previous year's training more effectively had I been more effective at grabbing more opportunities for sleep.  Better recovery = faster training = faster racing.   

2)  Sometimes it is OK to "go for two"

We could not have asked for a better day on Sunday.  Sub 50 temps, marginal breeze, one of the fastest courses in the US, and plenty of depth in the 2:30's for solid packs of runners to form.  Could I have played it safer and run a few minutes faster to maybe run the same time as my PR?   In hindsight, I think so.  However, doing so probably would have taken a magical time completely off the table.  Although "I felt great through 20!" is a popular refrain of many marathoners who struggle home in the last 10k, sometimes you need to put yourself in position for something big to happen.  That doesn't mean act rashly (and I don't think I did in this case, with some of my fastest miles coming around miles 15-16 without even realizing it), but it does mean its sometimes OK to go for the two point conversion to win the game (and risk a loss) rather than kick the extra point for a tie.    

3)  EVERYTHING matters in the marathon

Mileage.  Long runs.  Speed.  Tempo.  Speed endurance.  Nutrition.  Clothing.  Recovery.  Mental fortitude.  Execution.  Etc.....

I wouldn't say we left anything out in terms of training elements, but because certain outside "life" events forced a compressed preparation schedule in which marathon training did not begin in earnest until mid-November, we had to sacrifice in a few areas.  Workouts of 4 x 3 miles at MP and 14 miles at MP in the middle of a 25 mile day certainly indicated the fitness was there to pull off a great race.  However, when we really dig into the log and read between the lines, I probably could have benefited from another six weeks to prepare and create more synergy between the various training elements.  The flip side is that several times earlier in my career I had peaked early and wished the race happened six weeks before the actual date.  It's not a cliche to say that a good marathon requires many different things to go well, some of which are out of your control.  

4)  Automate self-talk strategies

I have to be honest: things went sour very quickly after mile 20.  Again, not an uncommon refrain in the marathon, but it probably caught me by surprise more than it should have.  It's been a while since I have been in that position in a marathon, with my most recent events bringing me through the last 10k feeling strong or as at Utah Valley (which started near 6,000 feet), nowhere near goal pace at any point during the event.  One of the beauties of the marathon is that you only get a few chances to truly "practice" the event, unlike a 5k which you can race virtually every weekend if you really wanted to and use more trial-and-error to see what works.  That sense of urgency is what makes these event so exhilarating, but it also adds a special burden of preparing a certain way different from shorter races.  In future events, I will take more opportunities to work on "catastrophe prep" so that emergency mental procedures are more automated to deal with mid-race setbacks.     

5)  Find races that care about logistics

I was complementing one of the medical staff after the race about the quality of the logistics and she reminded me that the race staff works 365 days per year on this event and begins planning for the next year's event long before the present event is done.  You don't realize how refreshing it is to park (for free) within walking distance of the start and finish until you've been on twenty mile bus rides to the start or had to pay out the rear for downtown parking.  Races like Houston care about these little things, and I will certainly file these observations away for future planning.  Surely you can't make things perfect (i.e. long port-o-pot lines) with tens of thousands of runners on the start line, but taking care of the details for the runners makes it that much easier to deliver your best performance on that day. 

6)  Non-athletes bring a healthy perspective to what we do

We stayed in Houston with a friend who is a non-runner.  On Friday we went to dinner with a group of his employees.  All they knew about running is that 26.2 miles is a long way to drive and that their city was going to be detoured all of Sunday morning.  Back at home, I am surrounded by people who don't even know that I was in Houston and who really couldn't care either way if I ran 2:30 or 4:30.  I think you need laser focus on game day and when it is time to take care of business in training, but away from training it does lend a valued perspective to view our sport with the bemusement of an outsider.    

7) You learn more from struggle than from things that go right

In the grand scheme of things, my last 10k was not catastrophic.  It sure wasn't good, but I have seen (and experienced!) far worse.  When I set a half marathon PR in the last half of the Philadelphia Marathon and closed Eugene with my fastest miles of the race, I could only look back at those experiences and say "Wow...that was great!"  When the body is seemingly on autopilot, it just feels like you are along for the ride.  In races where things didn't go as well, I can usually find several places to do things better.  Ultimately, having epic collapses in my first two marathons was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as a runner because I had a pretty good idea of what didn't work, not only for myself but to put the failures of others into proper context.  Looking back, I think Houston was a great experience because it offered the confidence of cruising through 30k feeling magical, but offered many opportunities for improvement.   

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