In the fall of 2005 I was an unknown regional runner who had never run a marathon with personal bests of 14:31, 30:37 and 1:07:28 by the end of the coming winter I would run 1:04 and 2:15. What happened? Why was it possible? This is the story of what I did, why I think it worked as well as it did. What I think I did wrong that could have made my first marathon even better.
As a reader of this blog you know I can't make any story short and in keeping with my normal form I'll start this story long before it really begins. I had a lot of injury trouble in college but finally got healthy for my senior season and first year of grad school. My second year of grad school I began to experiment with training based on Lydiard's books. The problem was if I did a 12 week base and got hurt the last week and missed two weeks I would basically go back to the beginning so the long and the short of the next 18 months was that I ran a huge amount of volume but I didn't do much else. Over this period I averaged around 135 miles a week and had weeks as high as the mid 170's. I regularly did strides and some tempos. My 22 mile long runs and 18 mile medium long runs were weekly staples and regularly run very well, in the 6:00 per mile range. However the reality was I was running a lot but not really training at all. Though it would be years before I knew the difference.
In the fall of 2005 I had put together a season of what I knew from college which was good work but in retrospect I am disappointed I didn't experiment more just from a learning and expanding my horizons perspective. That fall I was targeting the USATF Club cross country championships. I had some decent runs and set a few small PR's in the build up but nothing earth shattering but I hoped with a taper from my huge volume I would run a great race at nationals. In the end I for a few reasons was flat on the day and raced stupidly and paid heavily running one of my worst races of the fall and finishing 85th while a few guys I had finished around a couple weeks before at the New England championships finished in the top 20. I was crushed and pretty much ready to give up my half baked ideas of making anything of myself as a runner. I was also broke and I ended up racing again the next weekend for a bit of cash and on a snow covered but flat cross country course running totally alone I ran a 29:00 6 mile. This was at that point probably the best race of my life and I ran pr's for 4 and 5 miles en route. This convinced me I had screwed up my taper but didn't inspire me that I could make the breakthrough I had been hoping for. However my college coach, and current boss, at Umass Lowell, Gary Gardner talked me off the ledge and talked me into planning my debut marathon for the early winter.
I chose to use a specific training block that I seen on Bob Hodges website from Rodgers Rop. It was my first introduction to Renato Canova's training. It would change my life. I am not a complete idiot so I adjusted the paces of the Rop schedule based on his fitness during that phase, 1:00 flat half / 2:06 marathoner, for my paces. I however didn't think that perhaps a guy on that level my recover from a similar effort much better than a middling piker like myself. I would also learn later that a Lydiard base was not the best set up for a Canova specific phase.
And so I made mistake number 1. I spent one of the coldest Decembers in Lowell's history doing a four weeks of Lydiard base work. This meant my mileage was good but the only quality work I was doing was a few light 10 mile tempo runs at about 5:30 pace. My 22 mile long runs were under 2:12 and so they were great fundamental long tempos but by December with a goal marathon in mid February I should have been doing special work and my 10 mile tempos were not bad for moderate paced tempos but that is hardly a main session for this period in a marathon build up. Now I think these two sessions had a lot to do with why I survived the training to come at all and why I managed the breakthrough I did but they certainly where not the ideal build up I needed.
My specific work got off to a bit of a slow start after a bit of a niggle in my ankle had me starting the Rop training a couple weeks later than I had planned on January 4th. At that point I had done a handful of solid 22 milers and 3 or 4 10 to 12 mile tempo runs with none faster than 5:27 mile pace average. I had also done one set of short hill repeats.
On January 4th I jumped in head first with a special block. I didn't know it was a special block, I thought it was a marathon specific workout but anyway you slice it it was the hardest thing I had ever done. Read all about it here http://nateruns.blogspot.com/2015/01/my-first-canova-block.html
It was a great workout but I was not prepared to do it and I was completely wrecked after it. Four days later I tried my first moderate effort a 20 mile long run up in Hanover, NH before the UML kids got rolling at the Dartmouth relays and I barely slipped under 7min pace. It was a 144 mile week and a pretty good heads up for what was to come.
A couple days later my legs started to come back a bit and I managed a 21+ mile run in 2:02:02, about 5:45 per mile. A decent effort normally but still tired from the special block this was a pretty hard run for me. It also set me back in terms of recovery and I was pretty flat after. A few days later on January 13 I was scheduled to do another block. I did the first 10k of the first session in 34:07 and I knew I was done so I cut it there.
Three days later with my legs back under me I did my first truly specific session. Though Canova would call it a moderate effort for me with my lack of a proper set up phase it was a savage effort. After a 10min warm up I did 15 kilometers at about 80 to 85% marathon goal pace, 6:00 mile pace. Then I did 5k of 1min hard, with 1min moderate recovery, I covered that 5k in 16:57. From there the next 10k was set to be at marathon pace. I ran 33:09 which was dead on my goal marathon pace. I was targeting sub 2:20 which was the Olympic Trials A standard, 33:09 is 2:19:52 pace.
Knowing what I know now about how these session impact me I'm surprised I could run that fast after the 1/1 stretch which always puts me in a huge hole. If I were doing this session now I would make it 5k longer and take 5k moderate after the 1/1 before the mp running. Still this was great work and the effort, if not the pace, was dead right.
The next 5k were at a moderate pace to recover and I too easy, 20:37, before cranking out a last hard 5k in 15:57 which was pretty close to what was really going to be my marathon pace. In reality I should have been able to go under marathon pace at this point in the workout, with a proper build up to it you can go real hard here but for me with my build up to run even at marathon pace after over 20 miles of good work I was pretty well done. I finished with a 10min cool down for a grand total of about 25 miles.
This was a very good workout but again I was completely wiped out by it. A few days later I was trying to defend my GBTC track 3k title. It was the biggest race I had won at that point and I was dead determined to try and defend my title. I was so exhausted I remember my foot shaking violently as I tried to put on my spikes after a 3 or 4 mile warm up and some strides. Still despite feeling like I had barely enough energy to jog I managed an 8:28 3k which was my second fastest at the time. Not impressive by any means but a great sign of the strength I was building.
The weekend after the 3k I was racing the 3M half marathon which was my first real travel race and I had only got a spot in the field thanks to the help of my training partner at the time, Sammy Unberhagen, and I was desperate not to embarrass myself or by extension him. So I took it pretty easy that week. The only workout I did was a 3 mile tempo run at half marathon pace on the Reggie Lewis Track in 14:44. I had planned to run 5:00 pace which was a good bit faster than my PR from the fall but I knew I was getting fit and that the track was a lot flatter than the BAA course I had run that PR on. Still I was surprised how easy the pace felt and I got faster with each mile and was never tired.
At 3m, a very fast course I had a break out day. I went out nice and smooth for the first 2 miles in a large pack at 10:00 and then the pack sped up and I did to and sort of just continued to go with whoever was moving quickest in the group up to 10 miles. I passed the 10k in a new PR of 30:25 and I was sort of just running along wondering if I was dreaming. At 10 miles I just let it all out and ran the last 5k in 15:00 which was the second fastest road 5k I had ever run and a completely mind blowing effort to me. I ended up in 9th place in 1:03:44. A time that seemed like a dream to me. In the week after the race it came out that we may or may not have been sent the wrong way in the 7th mile and we might have cut 160 meters from the course. To me this really couldn't have mattered less. I still often list my half PR as 1:04:14, adjusting for the missed distance, just to avoid people thinking I'm using a bogus time but the reality was my PR going in was 1:07:28 the difference between whether I had finished in the high 1:03's or low 1:04's was nothing compared to the fact that I was minutes faster than I had been a few months before. I had gone from a regional hack to a guy who could finish top 10 at a fairly major US road race and I was pumped.
Still I was not without my own fears. When I got back to Lowell Gary set out trying to convince me that I needed to go out at 2:16 pace in my upcoming marathon debut but I was so tied up in the idea that just slipping under 2:20 was the best a middling talentless guy like myself could hope for.
Things were not helped when the following weekend I tried my first set of alternations. With no previous attempts at this workout I tried to jump into it right at its final and hardest incarnation. On top of that it was quite windy on the track. The results were predictable. My goal was 20k of 1k at 3:00 with 1k recoveries at 3:20. I survived only 7k after which I collapsed to the infield. The comment in my log shows my confidence was not good. I mention it was super windy but add that I'm sure the workout was too hard anyway. I'm not sure if I was trying to convince myself or sure up my argument for Gary that I was not ready to go after a mid 2 teens time.
Regardlessly Gary is no fool and was playing me like a fiddle and in another week or week and a half he had me on board for a 1:08 target split at the half marathon. Gary is good at dealing with athletes eccentricities and knowing what approach works best with different athletes and I was no different. It was funny because I had been working for him a couple years and run for him for a year before that so I had seen him at work and talked to him about it many times. So on one level I knew he was playing me and shaping my focus and yet on the other hand I went into the race with a new level of confidence.
My last two workouts went off without any hiccups. The canova schedule I had didn't include a taper for a marathon so I took the off handed solution the UML sprint coach tossed out when I was trying to come up with a taper plan and running it by Gary. He said why not just take a taper from a program from any marathoner who always tended to race to the full end of their fitness. It was a bit to simple for my thinking but then it wasn't an all bad idea so I used a Pete Pfitzinger's taper. I mean I think in 20 or so professional marathons Pete had one bad day. The guy was a sure thing on race day.
Ten days out from race day I did 3x 1600 at about 5k pace with 2mins rest, 4:35, 4:36, 4:38. It was odd to run that fast and that short but I felt strong if a bit uncomfortable with the quicker paces. Four days out from the race I did 2 miles on the reggie lewis track in 10:21. Right around my new goal marathon pace. It felt like a walk. Still I was no fool 24 more miles is a very long way with a lot of unknowns.
In Austin things started off a little funky. An ice storm had gone though and the bus to the start wasn't getting there and people were throwing fits, finally we found out they had delayed the start and it would be alright. At the start they had put out salt and sand on the course but in places it was so thick it was easier to run on the ice. We started with a long zig zagging loop out of the FreeScale parking lot and a deer found itself surrounded by runners on a parking lot Island. It ended up jumping through the crowd and causing quite a stir. It made the national news shows. It was very surreal.
The first mile I was in the lead pack. It felt like we were crawling. We were, 5:23. The leaders took off like someone had slapped them across the face at that split and I was in a big chase pack that included the Moulton twins and Sammy who was running the half marathon and pacing me.
In fact after the lot of us nearly wiped out on our first bridge crossing, we were all running off the sand because it was so thick and the ice had cleared up, but on bridges it was still in full force. So at each bridge Sammy would run out in front of the pack and test the footing. Nearly wiping out each time. But also giving us the warning to either hop on the sand or be very careful in crossing.
So we rolled on in a big group with me getting more giddy at each split with the effort feeling easy, other than a side stitch that came on around mile 10. Splits 2- 5:09 (10:33) 3- 5:10(15:44), missed 4, 5- 10:09(25:53), missed 6, 7- 10:15(36:08), 8-5:06(41:15), 9-5:04(46:20), 10- 5:05(51:25), 11- 5:06(56:32), 12-5:10(1:01:42), 13- 5:06(1:06:49)
At this point Sammy and a couple other half marathoners broke off to finish in a parking lot on our side we quickly took a turn in the opposite direction. With the lose of the half marathoners I quickly realized our pack was down to the Moulton Twins and I. We passed half way in 1:07:24, try to remember my half marathon best at the start of this cycle was four seconds slower than that.
Just after the half marathon Casey Moulton asked Pat and I how we were feeling, we both answered something to the effect that we felt fine except for bad side stitches. Casey responded "it's 28 degrees! Stop drinking water!" It worked! I struggled through the 14th mile in 5:13 by that point the stitch had finally relaxed. I could barely contain myself and I ran a 5:01 for the 15th mile and stretched away from Pat and Casey. I held it back a bit in the 16th mile, 5:05, and then really put my head down and drove hard into one of only two uphill miles on the course, this the harder of the two and ran 5:08.
At this point the reality of what was going on started to hit me and I was passing people pretty regularly. Not big stars or anything but the types of runners I knew and admired, 2nd tier Kenyans etc.. I let it go, I knew you were supposed to wait until 20 miles but I felt great and just pushed on. Not increasing the effort but also not holding back.
The 20th mile was largely down hill with a short steep climb at the end I ran my fastest mile of the day, 4:57. I was at 20 miles in 1:42:22. I was too tired to do much math but I knew my goal pace was about 32:00 for 10k which would be a mid 2:14 finish and that I could run pretty close to 38, which was slower than training pace, and still get under the Olympic Trials B standard.
I distinctly remember the 21st and 22 miles. They were the hardest thing I had ever done. During them I caught up to Josh Ordway and the Moulton Twins caught back up to me and we formed our own little pack. Both splits were 5:08 and I had this thought/feeling that this is what the last 10k would be like. I was going to be running as hard as I could and about as hard as I ever have but I would keep clicking off the 5:08's. This is how the end of my specific workouts had felt so I was prepared. Or so I thought.
If I had done a proper base and a full specific phase I'm sure that is what would have happened. Instead after 22 miles I was out of glycogen or very close to it. Our pack stayed together and it felt the same but the 23rd mile was a 5:15. I tried to push things and get us back on task in the uphill 22 mile.
I hit the watch at the 24th mile split 5:45! I actually laughed! I knew damn well I was out of glycogen. But I also came to this race to accomplish one impossible life goal qualify for the olympic Trials. I had nearly 10mins of buffer room so I knew I would get that goal and the rest was just experience. The 25th mile we turned around and headed back down hill in the opposite direction from where we came.
I tried to open up but my legs were fairly non-responsive. 5:15 was a big improvement and I started to think maybe it had just been a bad patch.
Casey and I pushed away from the other two. Shoulder to shoulder for most of the mile with Casey putting a bit of distance on me in the last bit of the 26th mile. This battle got me a not impressive 5:28. Aerobically I had recovered some and I thought I could muster a sprint to catch and pass Casey.
At the moment after the 26th mile I went to the arms and dried to drive forward. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Nothing happened. I was like a sputtering engine. The will was there, the lungs were there, but nothing happen. I was confused. I tried again..
Nothing! There was no way the legs were done. I just push forward to the line. Pure ecstasy! 2:15:28! It was beyond anything I had dared hope. I would find out later it was the 32nd fastest debut in USA history at the time.
It was the greatest break through of my life and the first time I had ever done anything like that. The real change had been made in the cold workouts of January but in many ways my running life can be broken down into two parts. Before my marathon debut and after. Things had changed. I had changed. A new path was in front of me.
I honestly believe as great as this breakthrough was it could have been better. If I had done a proper base I would have been able to do more specific workouts. If I had done a few more specific sessions I have no doubt my ability to burn more fat would have caught up with my aerobic fitness and I would have been able to keep knocking off 5:05 to 5:10 miles for the last 4 miles instead of crawling in like I did. This thought was not in my head in the weeks and months after the marathon but it would be put there the next fall by Canova himself but that as they say is a story for another day!