Managing Race Expectations/Injury
After spending this past race season focusing exclusively on triathlons, I decided it was time for me to return to my marathon roots and entered the Jacksonville Bank Marathon. This was never on my original 2012 race calendar, but I added it as a season-ending treat to myself when a friend asked me to join him on race day.
This decision presented a bit of a challenge.
While I had maintained a relatively high-level of training since the 2011 Ironman Florida race, I hadn’t run 26.2 miles since that November day in Panama City Beach. He asked me to run with him about 7 weeks before the race date. If I was going to run it, I needed to have a goal, I figured. I decided that I might as well shoot for sub-3:15 to snag another Boston Marathon qualifying time in case I decided to head to Hopkinton in 2013.
Unfortunately, my body had other plans, specifically my right calf. I have battled a bit of a nagging calf strain since a bike crash about two years ago. The crash has led to scar tissue in the calf muscles. I have treated it with ART massage on occasion when it acts up, which is what it decided to do about 2 weeks before the race. As a result, I needed to adjust my expectations.
My sub-3:15 goal (in truth, I was hoping for a sub-3:10 time), went out the window. Instead, I decided to run alongside my friend as he went for a sub-3:30 time. In the spirit of full disclosure, this plan was against the advice of my coach. He, as well as another coach I have great respect for, both told me to leave my running shoes at home so I wouldn’t be tempted to run.
However, in the week leading up to the race (after an ART * session), my calf started to feel better. I asked the ART therapist for his thoughts about whether I should run the marathon. The injury wasn’t severe and he didn’t advise me against running. I also spoke with my coach about it on an almost-daily basis. He instructed me to run easy for 30 minutes every other day to test it out. He still told me not to run the marathon. This is where it gets a bit messy. I’m very hard-headed. I’m also a competitor. How was I possibly supposed to drive 6 hours to Jacksonville and NOT run? This is like sending a drug addict to a crack house and telling him to abstain.
I’m hard-headed, but I’m not stupid. Leading up to the race, I told my running partner that if I felt even the slightest bit of pain in my calf, I would walk off the course, no questions asked, and he should be mentally prepared for me to do so. It didn’t matter to me if the pain popped up at Mile 1 or Mile 25.
Considering that this race was just a late-season bonus and I no longer had a BQ as a target, I had to find a way to keep myself honest and stick to my plan. To do so, I left my timing chip in the hotel room. I didn’t care what my time would be and I didn’t want to force myself to try to finish.
The Jacksonville Marathon is 3 races in 1. There is a 5k, a half marathon and a full 26.2. This gave me several options. If I felt an issue, I could quit after the 5k. I could also quit after the half. But, as I said, it didn’t matter where I was on the course, at the slightest sign of pain I was prepared to call it a day.
Fast forward to the race…
To run a 3:30 marathon, you have to average 8:00 min/mile. Our race plan was simple: For the first 10 miles, we planned to run 8min/mile. For the second 10 miles, we would drop it down to 7:45 per mile. This would give us an average of about 7:52 per mile. For the final 10k, the plan would change to “every man for himself.”
(NOTE: If you ever run a marathon with a friend, make sure you discuss your race plan before the starting gun goes off so you are both on the same page. If one runner is feeling good and the other runner is hurting, is it ok to leave the slower runner behind? Will you feel guilty about leaving your friend? Does the suffering friend expect you to stick with him/her no matter what? We both decided that if one of us was feeling better than the other, he should leave the other behind. No hard feelings.)
A marathon is not a 140.6-mile Ironman, but it is not to be taken lightly despite its shorter distance. Improper fueling will lead to a very long, miserable day. Running in Florida in December is a lot different than running in Florida in August. Yes, the heat wasn’t going to be much of a factor, but that didn’t mean I didn’t need to pay attention to fueling.
A coaching friend of mine, has become an advocate of the slow-burning “SuperStarch” found in Generation UCan * products. I plan to try the products, but have yet to do so. Therefore, I stuck to the golden rule of racing: DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING ON RACE DAY. As a result, here was my plan:
5 am: Begin drinking 16-ounce water bottle with two NUUN * tablets for sodium. (I have suffered from cramping in other races due to sodium loss. I didn’t expect to sweat a lot in this race, but I still wanted to supplement my sodium to be safe.)
5:30 am: Banana and 1/2 bagel. Small cup of coffee for caffeine and “GI cleansing.” You know the drill…
6:30 am: One Tri Berry GU *
7 am: START
7:45: One GU and one salt tab. (I repeated the GU and salt tab mixture every 45 minutes, with the final GU and salt tab coming at the 3:00 mark of the race.)
My liquid intake plan was simple: Grab one cup of electrolyte drink at each aid station (the stations were set up every 2 miles.) Typically, I only take a small sip of electrolytes at each aid station. I didn’t run with a bottle or Fuel Belt of any kind.
NOTE: This GU/salt plan has worked for me in each marathon I have run (other than my first, during which I cramped badly in my hamstrings and learned a lot about sodium loss.) Over time, I have come to believe that there are better fueling options out there (i.e. less reliance on sugar/caffeine). However, I have yet to test these options in training, so I decided to stick with what has worked in the past.
With solid race and fueling plans in place, the actual marathon was relatively uneventful. We ticked off one steady mile after another and averaged 7:51/mile through the 20-mile mark (one second ahead of our actual plan.) The course is incredibly flat with a low elevation of 2 feet and high of 109 feet (a bridge overpass). As a result of the flat terrain, my legs felt fine and I had absolutely no issue with my calf. When we reached Mile 20, I was ready to push the pace a little over the final 10k. I looked at my race partner and asked… “so… you ready to go?” He said he would give it his best shot to stay with me. I knew I had plenty left in the tank and was hoping to be his rabbit over the closing miles.
Mile 21 clocked in at 7:29.
At this point, there was a woman in her 30s I kept swapping places with. Each time I passed her, she would surge and pass me again. This went on for quite a bit. I found it kind of funny. I kept the same pace, but she kept fading and then surging. Either she was messing with me, or she was struggling to hang on. (I have to admit… as this was going on, I would occasionally run just off of her left shoulder so she could see my shadow. It was my way of amusing myself late in the race. She might not have found it so amusing, but at least she knew I was there.)
Mile 22 clocked in at 7:12. I officially dropped the “surging” woman from my shadow.
With 4.2 miles to go, I began to feel the impact of not running more than 18 miles at one time over the past 13 months. I was fit, but 26.2 miles is a lot different than 18 miles. A marathon is never to be taken lightly. Maybe I didn’t have as much left in the tank as I thought.
Mile 23: 7:31
Mile 24: 7:37
Running sub-7:30 miles became harder at this point, and rather than push myself to the limit and risk injury, I backed off the pace for the closing 2.2 miles with no regrets.
Mile 25: 7:59
Mile 26: 8:12
I crossed the line at 3:25:37 and started to keep an eye out for my running partner.
He came in at 3:32. While he missed his 3:30 time goal, he said he was happy with his result and grateful for the 20-mile escort.
Another marathon in the books. Another lesson learned. If you are battling an injury, be smart. Listen to all advice, see a doctor (preferably one with a running background) weigh the factors and make a smart decision. You have to be willing to listen to the signs your body is giving you, without regret. If that means sacrificing a time goal or walking off the course, accept your fate and live to run another day.
While my coach and others might disagree with my decision to run, I am the only know who truly knows what I was feeling on race day. Backing off my original time goal and making a pre-race plan to DNF at the first sign of pain was a compromise I was willing to live with. In the end, I wouldn’t change a thing.
* NOTE: I have no affiliation with any products mentioned in this report and receive no promotional support of any kind.