I got to participate in both of them, and finishing yet another two marathons that close together was educational.
What made those fifteen days even more fun was getting to see IN PERSON (Woo-hoo!) the 2012 USA Olympic Trials Marathons — also in Houston — the day before the 40th Chevron Houston Marathon.
A Tale of Two Marathons
The Metal Saw Texas Marathon required participants to cover four scenic loops of a concrete foot-path in the Kingwood subdivision on the north side of Houston, Texas, with the start and finish lines at a local park. The Chevron Houston Marathon required one loop on bridges and streets paved with concrete or asphalt through several parts of the city, with the start and finish lines at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Although the Texas Marathon had a lot of shade from trees, the all-concrete nature of the course gave my feet and joints much more of a pounding than did the mixed-surface course of the Houston Marathon.
There are many more differences between these marathons, but let me share them in my …
Personal Lessons Learned
I learned — or re-learned — a lot by running in two marathons just two weeks apart.
- Hold back as much as possible for as long as possible. Before I ran Texas this year, I decided that I wanted to run it in 4:56 and that I wanted my four splits (It was four loops long.) to be 1:15, 2:29, 3:43, and 4:56. I ended up running a 1:11 on the first loop and a 2:28 by the end of two loops. So I went out much too fast and ended up with a 5:28 finish — largely because I burned myself out in the first half. In contrast, I focused a lot of my Houston run on holding myself back and came as close as I have ever come to achieving a negative split in a marathon. I finished Houston with a 5:18 (ten minutes faster than two weeks earlier!), enjoyed the route the most of the five times that I now have run it, and got a 2:37:45 at the 13.1-mile timing mat.
- Find and support a running partner who can hold back for the negative split. My running partner for Texas this year was very enthusiastic about beating the five-hour goal. I encouraged this enthusiasm by telling her about the split times that I wanted us to get. Unfortunately, I let her down by not keeping a close eye on how quickly we were running the first loop, so we completed that loop four minutes too fast. (To non-marathoners, that may not sound like a lot, but, believe me, it was!) After two of the four loops, I lost the ability to keep up with her, and she finished Texas thirteen minutes ahead of me. In contrast, I told my running partner for Houston (another person with whom I had trained all season) that I had NO particular finishing-time goal and that I wanted to hold back as much as possible for as many miles as possible. She, in turn, was able to support me for the first twenty miles, and we finished Houston within three minutes of one another.
- Take an anti-inflammatory around mile 20. No, I am not talking about a pain-killer such as beer, which I once tried around mile 24 in a marathon. (That did not work for me.) I am talking about an over-the counter (OTC), non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). I did not do this on my Texas run, but I tried it for the first time on my Houston run. I got the idea from Marshall Ulrich's Running on Empty. I am not a medical doctor, and I am not prescribing or recommending any drug here, but I can tell you that — for me, anyway — an NSAID can take the edge off the dull pain toward the end of a marathon. (Your mileage may vary. Consult your health practitioner.)
- Insert ear plugs as soon as the crowd, bands, and stereo systems are too loud. Granted, Houston has some 250,000 spectators, lots of bands, and huge speaker-systems from various companies such as the beer sponsor, whereas Texas has maybe 250 spectators (pretty much all at the start/finish line), no bands, and no music blaring from speaker systems. So this lesson comes from trying something new in my 2012 running of the Houston Marathon that I had not tried in earlier Houston Marathons: wearing ear plugs from about mile 20 until I entered the finish-line chute. This dramatically decreased my stress level, which let me complete the 2012 edition of Houston with a much greater sense of calm than in previous years.
- Do not condition your happiness on your chip time. I focused most of my thoughts, as well as glances at my GPS wrist unit, in the 2012 Texas Marathon on the 4:56 goal and the splits necessary to achieve this — until, that is, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to achieve this goal. In contrast, I focused most of my thoughts, as well as glances at my GPS wrist unit, in the 2012 Houston Marathon on holding myself back as long as possible. And, you guessed it: I was much happier during and after Houston than I was during and after Texas. I don't mean a little bit happier; I mean a LOT happier. There are at least two lessons within this lesson, and I will talk more about them in my next book.
- Use called-out paces to help you to confirm that you are running a negative split. My running partner for Houston this year taught me this. I used to ignore the paces called out by volunteers at various points along a marathon, knowing that they were based on me crossing the start-line mat at the sound of the gun and that several minutes always passed between the sound of the gun and when I crossed the start line. But my Houston partner got me to pay attention to each called-out pace — not for its absolute value (such as “13:43/mile”) but for its value relative to the previous called-out pace (such as “12:27” for the latest pace versus “12:41” for the previous pace). Hearing our pace slowly but surely improve– for most of Houston, anyway — assured me that we were running a negative split.
- Listen to your breath to tell you when you're too fast. I have gotten pretty good at this, but I can miss it in the excitement of a race. My 2012 Houston Marathon running partner noticed my heavy breathing at one point when I missed it, and she got me to back off our pace until I could recover. Her bigger point was, “Let your body tell you when you're too fast.”
- When you must walk extra, see it as something that could revert to running, NOT as a black-and-white sign of permanent failure. I use various forms of micro-level pacing in my training and racing, so walking is a given for me. But walking beyond my allotted walking period or instead of running during my allotted running period is not a given for me. I used to see the extra walking during a marathon or half marathon as a sign of failure. What I started to understand during the 2012 Texas Marathon and fully understood during the 2012 Houston Marathon is that a period of extra walking can revert to running, which gave me a new, positive perspective.
- Training to run with negative splits helps you to race with negative splits. I finally learned in the long training season leading up to these two marathons to run with negative splits. And it was that training experience that gave me the confidence to go for a negative split in each of these two races.
- Focus on how you feel more than on how you run relative to others (except perhaps relative to your racing partner — especially one whose pace you know well). Mental Tricks for Endurance Runners and Walkers includes some race-day tricks that rely on leveraging the racers around you. And those tricks work. But first and foremost you have to take care of how you feel during a race. If you find someone with whom you can partner for at least part of a race, then also focus on how your pace matches your partner's pace. You can draw positive energy from one another, even if that partner was a stranger just minutes earlier.
- Spectators can make a big difference. Texas Marathon has maybe 250 spectators, most of whom are at the start/finish-line area. Houston Marathon has 250,000 spectators along the course, which works out to an average of 1.8 spectators every foot. I rely on spectators to renew my enthusiasm, especially toward the end of an endurance race. If you do, too, then pick your races accordingly.
- Good in-race nutrition can prevent deliriousness. Until the Texas Marathon and Houston Marathon in 2012, every marathon in which I participated ended with me becoming mildly or moderately delirious. I used to wonder whether this was a “runner's high” that was kicking in at around mile 20. But, then I learned more about my caloric and electrolyte needs during a marathon, and I realized that I was not consuming enough calories and electrolytes. I did not have this deliriousness problem in these two races, and I attribute it to religious “dosing” for calories and electrolytes throughout each race.
- Focusing on heel lift toward the end of a marathon can improve one's speed. I had what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see in person the USA Olympic Trials Marathons the day before the 2012 Chevron Houston Marathon. And “in person” means that I was just three feet or so from some of the best male and female marathoners in the U.S. as they passed me three times on the main loop of that course. Although I have traditionally been a shuffler in my marathons, seeing those 300+ Olympic hopefuls lift their heels quite high behind them inspired me to focus on my lifting my heels ever so slightly more than usual in the final four miles of Houston. And that little extra kick helped me to cut several seconds off my per-mile running pace in that stretch of the marathon.
A Paradigm Shift
My biggest “A-ha!” from these two marathons is actually a paradigm shift. When I see an endurance race as yet another training run, in which I hold myself back as much as possible in pursuit of a negative split:
- I enjoy the race more.
- I get to stay in the moment for each part of the race.
- I can finish the race faster.
How can you make this paradigm shift? Here's my advice for seeing your marathon or other endurance race as yet another training run or walk:
- Enjoy being able to throw down your trash.*
- Enjoy having all those spectators out to cheer you.*
- Enjoy being able to run down the middle of the road.*
- Enjoy having police and medical personnel right there to serve you.*
- Enjoy having photographers there to document your run or walk.*
- Enjoy having water or aid stations every one to two miles.*
- Enjoy having others track your splits.*
- Enjoy getting a finisher medal upon finishing.*
*Remember, you are paying in one way or another for all of this. So be grateful for and enjoy all of these ways that an endurance race is not the same as a training session!
What Say You?
Have you ever run two marathons just fourteen days apart? In the same city? What lessons have you learned? What was your favorite lesson? Do you look at your endurance races as yet more training sessions? I would love to hear from you. And your fellow readers may benefit, too. So please leave a comment below!