Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What The Osaka Marathon Taught Me

Running the Osaka Marathon, and then recovering for the last few days, has given me plenty of time to reflect. Here's what I think I've learned:

I ran the whole marathon with a pair of headphones in, just as for almost all of my training runs I'd done with a pair of headphones and some music blaring. Partly this was because my training runs were often monotonous: fifteen laps of Victoria Park's 600 metre jogging trail is not a stimulating route, full of variety, unless you count dodging between contrarian octogenarians and trying not to trip over an ankle-level lamp. But it was also a way of sealing me off away from the world.

A marathon isn't a training run, and by restricting myself to the same 55-minute loop of music, rather than the world around me, made me feel like I was never quite as engaged as I should have been. I suppose I was still just out there, jogging along, rather than racing. That seems almost ungrateful, or at least wasteful, with a million spectators and a bunch of people happy to bang drums over and over again all day.

Plus it doesn't look right. Part of running's appeal is that minimalist aesthetic; why choose a sport that doesn't require a ton of equipment, and then cart around an mp3 player? Why not pack a lunchbox too, and a bag with some spare underwear, and a mobile phone, and a camera, and a book in case you get bored half way round?1

On the other hand, there were also hundreds of people manning the water stops, yet I ran around the whole course with my water bottle in hand. I'm less convinced that was a terrible insult to the organisers, and more a sign that this is what I'm used to, and that you shouldn't muck about with dehydration on race day. Plus I did it in all my other marathons, so there's consistency there for you.

Then again, the bottle never actually ran dry; maybe I could have made it round without, and just drunk water at each station, but I suspect I would have been chucking up by halfway round if I'd tried.

Less is more
It was chilly at the start and overcast, but within a kilometre of the start line, I'd taken off my rain top: with so many people about, and with all of us exercising, there was more than enough heat to go round. Next time, if I had to, I'd wear something disposable like a bin bag, and chuck it as soon as I could, not run 41.195 km with an anorak tied around my waist.

I didn't run 42.195 km on Sunday, I did about half a kilometre more than that, and for most of the run I was worried and frustrated that my Garmin didn't show the same distance as the race markers. If I'd thought about it, or paid attention to this blog, I might have realised the near-impossibility of running the exact distance, rather than a bit more. Whether that means in training you should add in a bit extra to account for not running a perfect line, or just be aware that what you think is fast enough is going to be ever-so-slightly slower, I don't know.

But again, thinking about waste, I've got a vast amount of data - speed, heart rate, cadence - that I've never systematically reviewed. I didn't make a point after every training run of looking and saying "this kilometre was bad, this one was good" and working on ways to improve. It was just "that was a horrible run" or "that was quite quick"; it's a bit of a waste if all you're doing is collecting kilobytes and not doing anything with them.

Those four points are rather negative, or at least areas that need improvement. Looking to the positives, it was a great blessing to have my wife there. It's soul destroying to run 26 miles in a foreign country then have to walk home to your gloomy hotel room, quite on your own, shattered and ruined. It's even worse if you have to do it on the Australian Gold Coast in winter.

Whereas being able to wander confused through a number of enormous sheds, and then see someone you know waiting for you: well, it helps to make you feel like you're still a human being. After the Vancouver marathon in 2006, my friends brought me a balloon and a cinnamon roll, and that was also very nice, but a spouse is better. She was also kind and wise enough not to give too much advice while we were waiting for the start: when your mind is rotating faster than it should and you're stressing about whether you have the right hat or the right flavour of energy drink or if you need to do up your laces again, the last thing you want is somebody fussing over whether you have the right hat or the right flavour of energy drink or if you need to do up your laces again.

Once again, less is more; like my baked goods-bringing compadres in Canada, like my whiskey drinking pit crew at an 12 hour race, like my wife, human presence is important. Conversation, less so.

After race meal I was again surprised to find out that I'd be surprised by what I wanted after all that running. It turns out that a monotonous diet of sweet things leaves you hankering for something savoury. Who would have thought? Handily, my wife was there to take me to a coffee shop. Less handily, everyone still smokes in Japan. I suppose she could have brought a Thermos, but then if it had been full of coffee I'd have wanted soup, and if it had been full of soup I'd have wanted a custard pie.

So after the race, have somebody who can make decisions for you. If that same person doesn't need to talk to you before the race, they can fulfil that role too.

Treadmills are no good for you
They're the crystal meth of trying to get fit, they lull you into a false sense of security, they're an easy sop for a weak conscience, they're boring, there's usually a queue to use them, and they just don't count. I know that because I spent weeks and weeks in various gyms, running like mad and thinking I was doing good, and then the first time I went out on a trail I was a cripple from having to use muscles in my legs I'd neglected for weeks and weeks.

Treadmills don't simulate air flow around you, or having to change direction, or an uneven surface, or getting past passers-by, and they certainly don't make you fit, or as fit as you think they do. When you combine that with frankly risible distance, speed and effort readings, and treadmills that decide how fast you're going to run, or whether you mean 12 km/h or 12 mph, or how long you're going to run for, you're just exchanging time you could spend doing something good with ... well, a waste of time.

In their favour they do let you get some exercise when it's stupidly hot and polluted outside, but I'm coming to think that if you can't run outside, you need to do something else inside. Row until you're sick, or lift your wife above your head ten times, or something. Stay off the treadmill.

If you're going to run a marathon, you need to train. I can't be proud that I managed to do the whole course without running more than 20 km in training, because I ran 30 minutes slower than my best time (Tromso, 2006). If I hadn't got married this summer, if I hadn't changed jobs, if I'd valued a good time in the marathon above other goals, then I might have trained harder, at least done some long runs, and got a better time.

So: flying across continents is very disruptive of training. Getting a few fast times on short distances just before the race isn't indicative of success. Hal Higdon's training schedule does work (it worked fine for me in 2005, 6 and 7) but perhaps it has too much volume, or it's incompatible with other goals like staying up late or drinking lots.

Now, I don't drink much any more, but this neatly segues to the last point:

No clear goal
I didn't really have a goal in mind for the race. When I started training, it was because it was there and I felt like I should do another marathon. I didn't have a realistic goal, or at least a goal that might be compatible with everything else I was doing this year.

So let's set a goal. Let's try for something tangible, to be done before I finish this decade.

In fact, forget about try. You don't try to run a marathon, you do. Or you do not. Or you go home and collect Star Wars ephemera. Whatever. I'm going to run a marathon in less than 3 hours. I'm going to run one in 3:30 first, and then I'm going to break the 3 hour mark.

Now I just need to figure out when.
1 OK. I suppose apart from the lunchbox you could substitute an iphone for all of those, but come off it, please, you're missing the point.


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