Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First objective: Overcome the fear of the Marathon

As I mentioned, I have actually done a Marathon before although, I have to say, it doesn't really feel like it. To be honest it was a very disappointing experience. I got terrible cramps in my calf muscles at around 27km and had to hobble the remaining 15km, stopping to stretch every 200m or so. I was wearing a t-shirt with the words "Go Rob!" scribbled in black marker pen so, every time I stopped, the crowd would scream at me to "keep going Rob, you're nearly there!". ("Nearly there?! You bloody run it!") The worst thing about hitting the so-called wall is that it puts you in a really, really bad mood. You just can't be bothered. I remember thinking, "What's the point? I might as well run a egg and spoon Marathon or a 3-legged Marathon.". On top of that, I was actually getting very cold because I couldn't keep my heart rate up. Anyway, I knew that it'd only be worse if I packed it in and, in any case, I didn't have any money so I wasn't sure how I would have physically got back to the hotel. I also thought of my long suffering family who were gallantly waiting where I had told them to wait, at least an hour before I finally turned up.

Why did it go so wrong? I'd been obsessive in all my preparations, taking all kinds of silly supplements religiously. I'd even done a lactate threshold test, a VO2 max test and my coach had given me a clear indication of what pulse rate I should aim for at each point in the race. Its very simple: as soon as the race started, all that went out of the window. My pulse rate was 10 beats higher than it should be from the start. I put it down to the excitement of the race - but it just would not get down to the rate it should have been for the speed I was running at so therefore... I ignored it! Funnily enough, the point at which the cramps set in was when my pulse was at the level it should have been at the end of the race! Now why was it so much higher for a given speed than it had been in training? It was a cold (albeit windy) day so it couldn't be down to overheating, the bane of my running races - or could it? The humidity was around 90% and this effects the ability of the human body to expel heat via perspiration - the only difference that the outside temperature being high makes is that you have more heat to expel. Most of us have experienced a hot, muggy day where your clothes cling to you and you feel sluggish. On a cold, humid day, you don't really notice anything until you start running and - even then you may not realize it - the sweat just rolls down you but doesn't evaporate. Mental note to self: my coach is usually right.

Your heart goes "boom"

I also had another run in with the dreaded cramps in the half Ironman I did in Lisbon. I think it may have had to do with the fact that I drank: 1 cup of coffee, two red bulls, 5 gels with caffeine and probably a liter of coke. Cramps are a bit of a mysterious phenomenon from what I have been able to find out - it doesn't seem as though the conventional wisdom that they are largely provoked by an electrolyte (salt) imbalance has ever been definitively proved. I can only imagine that no-one has really looked into it seriously because any athlete worth his salt (excuse the pun) is unlikely to have suffered from cramps, otherwise they would never have made it to a high level of competition. There are exceptions, of course. Still, for want of a better explanation, I'm sticking with the electrolyte imbalance.

The good thing is that I did another half Ironman, this time in Madrid - ASTROMAD - and I didn't suffer from cramps. It was a really tough triathlon - very hilly and very hot. To give you some idea, the winner (Eneko Llanos' brother, a pro) did the cycle leg in 3 hours; in Lisbon, my time for the cycle leg of the same distance was 2h31. This time I stayed off the caffeine but I can't say that I stuck to any particular pulse rate because by heart rate monitor chose that particular day, of all days, to die. The difference was that I took about 9 salt stick tablets, which contain a mixture of electrolytes similar to those lost in sweat. I came up with the number 9 based on how much weight I typically lose through sweating, and the sodium content of the other junk I was taking. Anyway, I didn't get any cramps nor did I die of salt poisoning, so I guess I calculated it more or less right.

As the Ironman culminates in a Marathon, I thought it was probably a good idea to do one beforehand, one that I actually "enjoyed" or at least felt proud of. So I'm down to run in the Marathon in San Sebastián (Donostia) on the 28th of November, in just under two weeks. I'm in what is called the "tapering phase" which is when you reduce the number of kilometers you run (but not the intensity) so that you can charge your batteries. The thinking is that there is little you can do to influence your fitness between now and the race. I'm feeling pretty good, I have to say (TOUCH WOOD). I ran into work today and it was very easy - just over 12km/h for an hour at an average heart rate of 144bpm. My target heart rate for the Marathon is to run the bulk of it at 163bpm (according to my coach's calculations - if you are interested, you can check out his publication). So I should hopefully be able to hit my target speed of 13km/h, which would get me past the finishing line in about 3h15mins. That is, of course, if it is not too humid. Or any number of other reasons that can screw up a Marathon...


  1. That's a great marathon. I had my run/hobble experience with marathon just there eight years ago (my only one yet). I suffered like hell, exactly like you describe. I was totally underprepared and hit the wall with violence, but suffering in beautiful San Sebastian to get to the finish line is less painful than in other places. Enjoy the the race, the city and the food (this one is better enjoyed after the race, I made even that mistake the previous night!).

  2. thanks fernando - it will be a great marathon IF i manage to do it. we'll see. the thing about the marathon is the question of what is going to get you - cramps, the wall, stomach upset, muscle fatigue, lactate acid buildup, etc... it counts for nothing that you overcome 4 out of 5 of the barriers if the 5th one get's you in the end.

    ps: sorry you are still having problems with your achilles... that sucks

  3. i just found this on the internet. its by multiple world champion ironman, mark allen.

    "To keep my heart rate below 155 beats/minute, I had to slow my pace down to an 8:15 mile. That’s three minutes/mile SLOWER than I had been trying to hit in every single workout I did! My body just couldn’t utilize fat for fuel.

    So, for the next four months, I did exclusively aerobic training keeping my heart rate at or below my maximum aerobic heart rate, using the monitor every single workout. And at the end of that period, my pace at the same heart rate of 155 beats/minute had improved by over a minute. And after nearly a year of doing mostly aerobic training, which by the way was much more comfortable and less taxing than the anaerobic style that I was used to, my pace at 155 beats/minute had improved to a blistering 5:20 mile.

    To keep from going over your aerobic limit you will have to slow your pace down, often significantly.

    This is where most athletes do not have the patience to stick with the aerobic training. You may have to slow down several minutes per mile from your normal everyday training pace just to keep your heart rate from going above the aerobic maximum. Your perceived effort can be very, very low while you are developing your aerobic engine.

    And this is when one¹s patience is tested. Workouts will feel the opposite of the mentality that says training should be painful and muscles need to burn to get benefit. This may be true later during the speed phase of the season. But right now, this is absolutely not correct. You will be getting huge benefit that will show up months down the road. "