Training for a marathon is insane. When done properly, this battle of attrition wrecks, repairs, and then improves every system of a runner's body from VO2 max, to lactate and aerobic threshold, to metabolic efficiency. It breaks down muscle tissue, tendons, and ligaments and then builds them back up stronger. Even your toes get tougher. It tests your mettle and willingness to suffer week-after-week, and then comes back the following week with even more. It's relentless - a constant pounding of the mind, body, and soul. This is especially true if you're looking to lay a smackdown. In my case, this means training to improve my personal best by roughly ten minutes. No small task. This is why we love it.
Last week marked the halfway point of my twenty week road2boston training block. Things have been going fairly well - even with the snow and extreme cold temperatures. My training has been varied and building progressively. I've missed only a couple workouts, and the chillens have ruined just a handful of nights of sleep. I've stayed healthy and injury free all while increasing my weekly volume of running higher than ever before.
These are all good things. However, because the marathon is such a beast and performing your best means teetering on the brink of complete breakdown (I won't say failure because I believe just making it to the finish line is success), we look for moments during our training to fill us with confidence of meeting our goals on race day. I had two such moments last week within a four day stretch.
My biggest issue in 3 of the 4 road marathons (one trail marathon on my resume) I've run has been cramps which started in my calves and crept their way up to my quads and hamstrings. As a result, I lost precious time stopping to stretch things out on multiple occasions. Surprisingly, the only marathon cramps weren't an issue was my first, but then it was also my slowest at 3:15. At Boston last year they hit me by 25k, earlier than ever before, yet I still gutted out a one minute PB.
There are many theories as to why people cramp during a marathon, or during extended bouts of running, but nothing has been definitively proven. It's all hearsay and educated guesswork. However, of them all, the one I tend to believe is the most obvious. Cramps are a result of muscle fatigue. They are simply a by-product of muscles being asked to work harder and longer than they are capable of. This is why people very rarely cramp during training. They may do three or four hour long runs with no problems, but for obvious reasons, they don't push themselves to the max like they do during a race, which brings me to my point.
This time around I've committed to doing several long hard training runs of various styles in order to train my muscles to run harder and longer, and hopefully stave off cramps during Boston 2015. Last Wednesday I had my best effort to date - a 26k run with 20k at or below marathon pace (~4:10km). The best part about this run wasn't the fact I completed it, but more the fact I was struggling bad between 8-12k, and then I just flipped a switch mentally, dialed-in and accepted the task at hand, and became a metronome of running efficiency. From 12k on, not only did I know I was going to complete the run, but I felt strong and the last 3k were three of my fastest splits of the entire workout. Then, on Sunday, I followed that up with a 20k run in which I threw down 6 x 1 mile at threshold (~3:50-3:53km) with one minute recoveries + 4 x 200/200 jog + 4 x 400/400 jog in the middle.
Nailing a marathon is more than proper training. It involves luck as well. The weather is out of our control. Things like GI distress and injury and even cramps are often out of our control too. However, it's up to us to help luck happen by "controlling the control-ables" as Donald Rumsfeld once said. In running, that consists of our mental approach and physical conditioning. Several more training runs like these and I'll have the confidence, strength, and physical stamina I need to deliver on race day in Boston.