November 11, 2010

2010 Santa Barbara Marathon Lessons Learned

"Take all my vicious words 
And turn them into something good 
Take all my preconceptions 
And let the truth be understood……

Courage is when you're afraid, 
But you keep on moving anyway…."

‘Courage’ - Orianthi (feat. Lacey) – heard on the Nano at the base of the biggest climb of the day in mile 23. Perfect timing after beating myself up mentally for the previous 8 miles.

What an intense experience this marathon was for me. The race recap itself is in a separate blog. Mentally, this race exhausted me more than any other has affected me in the past. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was in a state of depression for a couple of days following it. While I did break 5 hours (my “what I’ll be happy with” goal) and achieved a PR by 38 minutes, I thought I could finish in 4:50 – and planned on it. In the days that followed, rather than focus on what I was able to accomplish, I was immersed in feelings of failure due to factors I consider to have been under my complete control, and chose to ignore- many of which were against my better judgment. The following 4 points are those I consider to be the most critical over-arching mistakes and thus lessons I learned from Marathon #2.

Lack of Self Confidence
Despite writing up an analysis of a hilly half marathon I ran in March of this year and a local 5.5 mile hilly loop I run with relative frequency, I let this course intimidate me. I decided to use a different pacing strategy (Maclin – terrain adjusted pacing) during the race that I did not practice with during training. I convinced myself it didn’t matter because the overall pace would be the same, so what difference would it make if one mile is run in 10:30 and another in 12:00 with each mile different from the last for the most part? Logistically, slowing down on the ascents would presumably require the same power output as a faster pace on flat terrain or descents thus, at least in my mind, my physical effort would not be affected by this different pacing strategy.

Most of my long distance training involves running negative splits and while I was able to maintain a steady pace for the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon, there is a HUGE difference between 13.1 miles and 26.2 miles. Not to mention, I have only have about 6 runs under my belt that exceed 20 miles, and those have all happened within the last 12 months. I have more years of experience running 13-15 miles than I do 20-26 miles. I would have been smarter to run the first half (deemed the slower half by the race organizers) at an easier pace and save the kick for the end just like I do in my training. I wavered from this knowing the steepest hill was late in the course (in mile 23) and I feared my 4:50 goal would slip away if I was too tired to tackle that hill at the pace I needed to, and wouldn’t have enough left in me to make up the time in the final 2.5 miles, all of which was mostly a steep descent.

Despite relying on what I thought was the best pacing strategy, I still didn’t follow it on race day! This is VERY unusual for me. My average pace over the first 12 miles was 19 sec/mile faster than the Maclin plan. The worst of it was between miles 5 -10 where my average pace was 23 to 51 seconds faster per mile for that entire 5 mile stretch. And I wasn’t even at the halfway point! Oh, did I mention miles 5-8.5 was a 150ft ascent? No wonder my calves and feet were aching so early on!!!

HR in red; Pace in blue; Elevation in green

The over-thinking and over-anticipation of the course (before and during the race) was not conducive to having a healthy and strong mindset. The best plan would have been sticking to what I know best works for me in terms of pacing, hills or no hills.

Fueling During the Race
I started developing GI pain during long runs about a year ago that went away when I switched from a combo of Gu/Cytomax (after 2 years of consistent use) to Sports Beans/Accelerade. Since the switch, I researched and learned more about the absorption of carbs during long runs, and as a result of my findings, I had been wondering if I was using the Gu and Cytomax too close together. This could cause a slowing of carbohydrate digestion and a build-up of undigested sugar in the intestines. The result of which is GI distress: nausea, diarrhea, cramping. Read more about maximizing carb absorption here!

Despite a known history of GI problems with Gu, I convinced myself I would be fine using Gu gel and Gu electrolyte brew (offered on the course) as long as I drank water with the Gu gel and only drank the electrolyte brew by itself.  I know Gatorade products cause me intense GI cramping – I cannot consume them during a long run or for several hours afterwards without suffering from severe cramps. It is clear that I have a sensitive GI tract and I need to stay true to my current fuel choices. Race day is not the day to test old theories or try new sources of fuel!

Making fear-based decisions during the race spontaneously
My fear of missing the 4:50 goal time negatively impacted performance and was probably the biggest mental contributor to post-race feelings of failure. Even though I internally acknowledged I was running too fast for the first part of the race, the amount of pressure I was putting on myself to exceed the “break 5 hours” goal drove to me to create unnecessary barriers.

I ignored biological signs of distress and squashed every bit of instinct I had. The chief fear-based decision I made was not using the porty-potty at the first sign of GI cramping. I know that feeling yet I allowed myself to think the pain would go away on it’s own; that I could “think my out”.  The fact that a lone porta-potty appeared out of nowhere TWICE in the 5 miles in which I experienced the greatest discomfort (miles 16-20) and yet I still avoided stopping is a big tell. Fear mixed with a lot of stubbornness. (I’m an Aquarius, what can I say? Rebel is my middle name!) The average amount of time I lost in each mile between 16-20 was 18.5 sec/mile – and that includes the first bathroom break I finally gave in to at 19.5 miles. The discomfort was so intense just past mile 17 that I wanted to quit, but I still didn’t want to stop for a bio-break? Are you kidding me? What was I thinking? Oh ya – 4:50 or FAIL.

The physical distress (running too fast in the first half + 5 miles of intense GI pain) combined with a rapidly decaying mental state was a tough hurdle to get over. I’m so thankful I let go of trying to control my 2nd bout of GI pain and took the time to use the porta-potty at 21.5 miles. I lost about a minute and a half with that 2nd stop, but the physical relief rolled into a mental relief. It was the best decision I could have at that point because the big hill was yet to come. Had I not gotten to this spot before then, I may not have come in under 5 hours at all.

Incomplete hill training
One of the basic fundamentals of exercise physiology is a term known as Specificity of training.  “…. if you focus your training on a specific part of your sport, improvements will be seen in that part and that part only.” This concept applies to both the activity itself and the intensity of the training. I did not address or take into account the effect of downhill segments (especially steep and/or elongated descents) beforehand even though I know how damaging downhill running is to the quads and the negative impact it has on leg strength. Since I run most of my weekday runs on our treadmill, I do a lot of hill work, but TM hills only flatten out, there is no actual descent work being done.

When you are running downhill, your quads are eccentrically contracting to control the force of gravity pulling you downhill. During an eccentric contraction, the muscle fibers are being stretched as they are contracting (contraction creates force) which also causes tiny fiber tearing! Some research suggests that more fast-twitch fibers are recruited during eccentric contractions relative to concentric contractions. Concentric contractions are the shortening of muscle fibers during muscle contraction such as what happens to your biceps when performing a bicep curl. Using this same example, when you bring the weight back down to it’s starting position (during a bicep curl), your biceps are lengthening but still contracting to control the force of gravity.

As fast-twitch fibers are geared more for explosive and powerful movements and can only use glucose as fuel, the finding that more fast-twitch fibers are recruited during eccentric contractions coincides with findings of a decrease in strength and power in the quads with downhill running because these fiber types get fatigued quickly. Concentric contractions and movements requiring less power and more endurance recruit primarily slow-twitch fibers which can use fat and glucose as fuel. Read more about muscle fiber types here!

The lack of downhill training on my part definitely contributed to an inability to keep my pace up, in addition to the GI issues. As seen in the Garmin data below, it is clear that my cardiovascular fitness was not a limiting factor in this race. My average HR of 135 (73% of HRmax) over the course of the race, only increasing with the burst of power in the last 1.3 miles. It is obvious to me I need to work on leg strength and include eccentric work. By including eccentric leg work, I’ll  be improving my ability to generate more power (fast-twitch fiber recruitment) which will also positively affect uphill and speed as well.

HR in red; Pace in blue; Elevation in green
In Summary
  1. Avoid doing anything different on race day. This includes any new fuel sources, gear, shoes and clothes that you have not run with, especially if you have not tried them out on a long training run.
  2. Maintain a healthy mental state by staying confident in your race day plan and listening to your body.
  3. Respect downhill training as much as your uphill training. Check out this article for suggested drills.

Between a 38 minute PR and coming in under 5 hours despite these challenges is a victory for me, and I am coming around on it. The lessons I learned here are big and I’m actually glad I was presented with them in Marathon #2, very early on in my Marathon career.

In closing, none of it really matters….  “I’m only doing this so I can post a picture on Facebook”. LOL! I’m just kidding of course, but this is one funny shirt from One More Mile Running Apparel!

Next marathon: Watch out 2011 San Diego Rock-n-Roll Marathon. I'm coming for you!


Greg Strosaker said...

Nice analysis, especially the discussion of the downhill portions and what it means to your muscle recruitment. I had not seen that information before, definitely something to keep in mind when training for any marathon involving a blend of hills. I'm impressed that your HR could stay so low throughout the race, you are spot on in saying that cardiovascularly you were ready. Leg strength will come along, and, as you are finally coming to accept, this is a plenty-fine marathon performance in any case.

Vera said...

Thanks so much Greg. I'm glad I could share some info that is new to you! Usually, it's the other way around! ;-)

Michael Huang said...

I enjoyed reading this, Vera. My personal experience coincides with yours about the importance of downhill training. I stress-fractured the necks of both my femurs running downhill. Hill work for me is much scarier after being so seriously injured. My favorite hill loses 87 feet in a tenth of a mile; now that it has cracked both legs, I call it affectionately, "Snapper Hill." :-)

Vera said...

Geez Mike - Snapper Hill? Well, at least it's an "affectionate" term, LOL! Maybe some of those drills in the downhill training article will help you too!