Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SF Marathon Part I: SF Marathon Revisited

As a birthday present to myself, I decided to run the SF Marathon again after 27 years. This race has a special place in my heart since it was the first marathon I ever ran (back in 1982!), and because it was such a wonderful experience then. I thought if I really wanted to judge my fitness now, I should try it again so I can compare the then with the now. But first, let’s talk about why it was so wonderful back in 1982.

In July of 1982, I had only been running regularly for about 10 months. I had been a sprinter in high school and early college, and then crewed for Duke and Stanford, all of which are largely strength/fast twitch or strength/endurance sports. I always hated the two mile timed runs we had to do for crew to judge our fitness, just as I had always hated the warm up for sprint practice. But when I went through some big hiccups in my personal life, I coped with the emotional trauma by running long and hard, mostly at the Dish loop at Stanford, which was convenient because I worked as a research assistant there after graduating from college. I also ran some with friends, most of whom were faster than me. One was running the SF marathon, and I went along as an unofficial runner at the last minute. I didn’t know how to train, and hadn’t in fact done much specifically to train. I had obviously done some longer runs- maybe 8-12 miles, and the weekend before the race, I went out for ~18 miles on the roads from Stanford out through Portola Valley and back. That went ok so I decided I was ready to try the distance. But I was certainly not expecting much, and just hoping to finish. My running partner went out fast and I didn’t expect to see him again until the finish. I sauntered along for a few miles at what felt like a very slow pace. After ducking into a restaurant to use their bathroom (no portapotties at this event!), I figured it was time to see what would happen if I sped up, so I slowly increased the effort level and kept on speeding up until I couldn’t anymore. This worked surprisingly well, and before I knew it, I was steadily passing people, including my running partner (reduced to a painful walk by that stage)! I don’t know why it worked so well (this is all relative of course- real speedy people will laugh at my pitiful accomplishment), but I was thrilled to finish in 3:45, and especially to pass the guy who always made me feel so slow. I still have the medal to this day, which they gave me even though I was an unofficial runner.

So on to 2009. I’ve been running pretty regularly, albeit with injuries of one sort or another for the past year. Last summer it was a piriformis problem, and this past winter, it was hip flexor tightness, along with more piriformis and glut medius problems (opposite hip this time), not to mention sore gluts and hamstrings when I finally got other parts working properly. In trail ultras, there can be a fair amount of hiking due to steep hills and rough terrain, and trails are rough enough that speed isn’t really an option (for me anyway), so these injuries were not debilitating. More recently, I’ve managed to get past those particular problems, and train more or less regularly, and work on pace as well. So I thought it might be time for a comparison with those earlier days. Also, after David injured his knee last May (he’s mostly recovered and faster than before it seems!), I did more road running, starting from home running alone and heading up into the hills, or up to the Dish, while still doing trails some of the time. My usual training was pretty slow, with easy efforts at relatively low average heart rates (~130’s- I can be very lazy, but justify this by saying that it is low stress :) ). I threw in some faster tempo runs and Yasso 800’s starting in June to help raise lactate threshold, and these predicted a marathon time of ~4:10. So I felt like my legs and feet were reasonably acclimated to pavement and my conditioning should be good enough to get me through a marathon in a not too disappointing time.

The Expo: I’ve only done trail races since starting to run and/or train (if what I do can be called training) more consistently in the past year. So the Expo was a first for me and I was eager to see what it was all about. There were lots of samples of drinks and snacks to try, and clothes that looked like fun. But all I bought was shoes- there was a $50 per pair bargain booth, and I got my first Mizunos and a pair of Brooks. I don’t have much in the way of road running shoes (I ran the race in a cheap pair of Adidas from Costco!), so I thought this would be a good plan. We’ll have to see how these shoes work out.

On race morning, David dropped me off a few blocks from the start with only minutes to spare from my wave 6 start time of 6:17. The line for the portapotties was so long, I just gave up and headed to the start. This probably explains the unexpected mix of running speeds in the pack- all those faster people who were delayed for half an hour at the start! Our wave began, and I loped along at about a 10 minute pace, hoping things would thin out soon so I could get up a little more speed. That never really happened though. The pack was very thick all the way out and back across the Golden Gate Bridge. People could never really get their stride due to bobbing and weaving between faster and slower people all the way up to about mile 10. I blame this partly on the portapotty situation at the start, but also we really needed more space! Many people were taking walking breaks, which made it hard for those of us trying to keep a consistent pace. I felt great though, light on my feet (unusual!)- nothing like adrenaline and a crowd of happy people running in cool SF fog! Returning across the bridge, I yelled a loud “Go Julianne” to Julianne , the only other person I knew who was running (she was pacing the 4:45 group). When they offered Gu at the aid station, I obliged and had a couple (the caffeine was a good idea for this night person), downing them somewhere between miles 8 and 13. There was more Gu at mile 16, and I took another. All during this time, my heart rate was running about 145. It rose on the hills, but apparently I made up for any increase on the downhills. I felt like I was fading a bit between miles 13 and 16, but soon thereafter (maybe it was the double caffeinated espresso gel!) realized that if I was going to have any hope of a strong second half, I’d better get moving. I pushed into a heart rate zone of 150+ through Golden Gate Park and down toward the Embarcadero again. I kept pushing and pushing, but unfortunately, there were plenty of hills that kept pushing back. Then there were the diversions- it was very disconcerting to arrive at an intersection and have them pull caution tape right in front of you and send you a different way! Presumably, this trick allowed them to keep some traffic moving across the race route. I still felt ok though, except for cramping calves. The cramping got bad enough that I had to stop and walk a few times, or pull over to the curb and stretch out my legs- they were very very stiff! I met an older man during one of my stretching interludes who seemed concerned I might quit (he was 71, so I can still say he was older, right? ). He was wearing a complicated looking knee brace. When I asked him what the brace was for, he explained that he had arthritis and when his Dr. said he couldn’t run anymore, he said that was not an option. He said his knee actually feels better after he runs! He also explained that he runs at a level of effort to keep his heart rate below 130 (must be nice!). We ran together for a bit, then I went on ahead while I could, trying to get mine back up to 150 or so. Of course, the last few miles of a marathon just suck no matter what- everything was stiff and hurting by that point and I could barely climb up and down over curbs! And it was warming up in the now sunny city! But drag into the finish I did, in a sparkling 4:31!

The post-race food was disappointing, and not on par with post-ultra refeedings. There was carbs and more carbs in the form of bananas, snacks and more sugary drinks, but nothing more substantial, not that I saw anyway. They were very eager to replace our glycogen stores the moment we stopped running, but I wasn’t eager to replace my glycogen stores immediately- I planned on taking at least one rest day to recuperate. It’s not like a multi-day event where you need to be diligent about getting fuel stores replenished right away. After a grueling event as long as a marathon, you need protein to start the process of rebuilding and repairing muscles, not empty carbs! See the very interesting posts by Robb Wolf here and here. We left the food behind quickly, as there was really nothing there of any use to me. We found a gyro place instead, where at least there was mix of protein, veggies and carbs. It was hard to leave behind the massage tables though. They were quite tempting! Fortunately, David gives a good massage too, and I enjoyed his generosity very much once we got home.

I also thought it was interesting that they put water or cytomax into tiny little cups, holding usually no more than 2 ounces! After the race, I was very thirsty and drank the entire bottle of water they handed out at the end almost immediately. Do you suppose they were concerned about hyponatremia, and trying to keep people from over-hydrating?

I made no effort to “Carb-load” for the race. I may have eaten slightly more carbs than usual (maybe 150 g vs 100 g?), but nothing dramatic. The night before, we had plenty of protein and veggies, but also some birthday cake (a spectacular nut torte made by my in-laws). I was pretty happy that there was no outright crash into the “wall” and in fact I felt quite strong through the usual “wall” territory. Whether this was because I used a few gels (75 g worth of carbs), ample caffeine, or pacing so that I burned plenty of fat and didn’t prematurely deplete my glycogen stores, I don’t really know. I never used gels (they didn’t exist!) back in the 80’s when I was faster, and barely drank any of the Gatorade they offered at water stops anyway. Marathons just aren’t that long, and with proper training, you shouldn’t need carb supplementation anyway. But that’s not fashionable now either. Still, I try to keep an open mind and test these theories as best I can.

I wore drymax socks, and despite no blisters on the left foot, ended up with 3 on the right! The odd thing is that these blisters were in different places than I’ve ever had them before. I think an important part of blister avoidance is acclimating the feet to both the shoes you’ll be running in and the running conditions. I could have had tougher skin on those parts of my feet if I’d trained more in those particular shoes and with longer runs on those types of roads. Since I put in only a few longer runs on roads at all, and often in different shoes, my feet just weren’t prepared for the particular stresses of that event. You’d think I would know this by now. Well, live and learn, maybe…

Surprisingly, the Garmin says I averaged a heart rate (HR) of 147 for the first half (at a pace of 10:05) and 145 for the second (at 10:20). All the effort to get the HR up didn’t do much to increase speed overall, but perhaps the problem was the cramping and the heat due to the warming city streets. I certainly tried to pick up the pace, but the hills between miles 15 and 21 made sure the effort went largely to making it up and over them, not speediness. I don’t really think I could have gone much faster, except maybe in the earlier miles if there had been less crowding. By the end, I was pretty beat and going on inertia and will power.

I knew going into the event that I would probably be disappointed, and it was not likely I would have another surprisingly fast run. I wondered if maybe I hadn’t trained adequately, since I ran considerably slower than I had hoped. I mean the Yasso 800’s predicted a 4:10 after all! Perhaps they’re not so accurate. On the other hand, where was the muscle soreness? I had none of the usual post-race muscle soreness! Walking up and down stairs was just normal the days after the race. My body acted as if this was just a hard training run, and I went running again after resting only one day! This argues the effort was not all out. Perhaps I’m too used to ultras and doling the energy out more evenly over a longer period of time. Then there is that laziness factor…

All in all, this was a nice event. There were cute signs all along the race course asking questions about SF history (but it would have been nice to see some answers to those questions too). I saw parts of Golden Gate Park that I didn't even know existed before. The music stations were enjoyable too, if spaced a bit far apart. It was just a nice place to run on a foggy morning with 20,000 other like-minded people.

That said, I think trail ultras are a lot easier, at least for me. There is more variability in the terrain, allowing you to use different gaits, paces and muscles depending on what the trails throw at you at any given moment. At my level, I walk some, stretch more and generally don’t get quite as stiff and depleted as in a road marathon. So more trail ultras are in the plans, but possibly another road marathon. I should be able to run one faster, shouldn’t I? (see Part II, coming up)


Danni said...

Nice work! Marathons can be fun but they really aren't as fun as ultras I think.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Hi Danni. You're right- marathons are "work." Maybe it's the big crowd, TV cameras, etc, but you end up feeling like you have to try harder, or maybe that you really have no excuse not to go faster- no mountains to sap your energies or vistas to distract!

Are you coming back this way any time soon? We never got to meet up.


Anonymous said...

Great blog! I think it's awesome you did this 27 years later. I agree with you and Danni, ultras are better :-)