The last two weeks have been really weird. First is the fact that I didn't work for a week and a half which left me really, really not wanting to show up for work on Wednesday. Second is that last week I ran 45 miles including a 20 miler last Saturday. Third is that I've barely run at all this week.
You see, that 20 miler marked the high water mark of my preparation for the Houston Marathon and now I'm doing what is called a taper. This week all of my runs are basically cut in half and they feel really, really easy compared to what I'm used to. I ran 1.5 miles on Sunday, 4.6 miles on Tuesday, and 5 miles (3 miles at tempo pace) on Wednesday. Today I'll run an easy 4 miles and tomorrow or Sunday I'll run an easy 8 miles. Next week I'll only run 3 easy miles on Tuesday, a light 5 mile tempo run on Thursday, and 3 easy miles on Friday. The goal is to do just enough running to maintain my fitness level and stay sharp while letting my body recover from all the training so that on Sunday the 13th I can finish the Houston Marathon in under 4 hours.
I'll drive down to Houston on Friday night and check into a nice hotel downtown. On Saturday all I have to do is pick up my registration packet. The rest of the day will be spent relaxing and eating healthy food. On Sunday I'll get up at 5:00 am and start preparing for the 7:00 am start.
I've broken the race up into 30 minute segments that are 3.3 miles long and marked them on a course map that I have sitting on my desk next to my computer. My plan is to take the race 30 minutes at a time. I'm trying to visualize how I'll feel in each segment and what my mental mindset needs to be.
The first segment will be just getting warmed up and working through the crowds at the start. This portion of the race usually goes by really quickly and the focus is on slowing down because it's easy to get excited and take off too fast. At the end of the segment it will be time to take my first gel packet. I'll be taking a 100 calorie Clif Shot Espresso flavored caffeinated gel every 30 minutes during the race along with PowerAde from my Camelbak and fuel belt. I'll also be taking electrolyte caplets periodically to prevent cramps at the end of the race. I need to work out amounts and schedule for that.
The second segment will have the crowds thinning out and is when I'll be trying to get solidly onto my 9:09 goal pace. At the end of the first hour I should be warmed up and locked into pace. If it's cool, around this time I'll probably be shedding my gloves and hat to keep from overheating.
The next three segments should just be cruise control and should feel reasonably comfortable. The first is a straight segment and is followed by stretches that take me around Rice University and then up to the Galleria area. The end of the fourth segment comes at the halfway point 2 hours into the race just past the university. The end of the fifth segment will bring me to the 16.5 mile mark 2:30 into the race and is when I anticipate the race really beginning. It's after this point where the stress really starts to build and the effort level begins to rise in order to hold pace.
The sixth segment is critical because it is the run up to where most people, including me, hit the wall at around mile 20. The race will transition from feeling like being on cruise control to requiring continuous mental effort to overcome negative messages from my body. My legs will be complaining about fatigue. I'll want to slow down. I'll want to take a walk break. I may feel shooting pains. My hips will undoubtedly be sore by this point as my sciatic nerves get inflamed. The goal of this segment is to achieve a high level of focus and steel myself for one big push.
The seventh segment is the big push. This segment will start just before the 20 mile mark as I cross under I-610 and is where the race really begins. This is where I have to have the confidence in my preparation to push through overwhelming fatigue and soreness with a knowledge that my body can handle it. The heart rate will climb from the low 160s to the upper 160s and even low 170s. My lactate threshold is somewhere near 170 or 172, so I'll be running very near my aerobic limit. But it's just 30 minutes and only 3.3 miles. It's only a little more than 5 km. Forget about want comes after and just focus on getting through the next 30 minutes. The first goal is to get to the 20 mile mark. It's a short distance to the 20 mile marker. Then I only need to do 3 more miles. Only four 400m splits for each mile and I'll probably be taking it a quarter of a mile at a time at this point. Just reach the next split. With two down then it will just be two more to get to the next mile. After 6 splits then it's halfway done. At the 23 mile mark it's merely a tenth of a mile, less than a minute, to finish this critical segment. Finish. Finish strong. Look forward to the last segment. When this segment is done then it's just a short stretch to the end. I'll be 88% done. Heck, round up and I'll be 90% done. Almost all of the effort will be behind me and all I'll have to do is finish. So, if I feel like slowing down, pick the pace up a bit. Vary the pace a little faster, then a little slower. If in doubt, surge and pick the pace up a bit. After all, it's now less than 30 minutes until this segment is over. Don't worry about the end. Just live in this moment, here and now, and do this segment in a way that I'll look back on with pride.
The eighth and last segment is the finishing segment and my mantra will be, "Finish!" The race will be 90% behind me. I'll have come this far right on pace and if I can get this far then nothing will stop me from finishing strong and on pace. I don't have any illusions about how I'll feel at this point. I can vividly imagine the absolute fatigue in my legs and the building burning in the muscles. It may feel like I've blown everything just getting through that last segment. My mind will be going numb from the concentration and mental effort required to get through the previous segment, but now I have the advantage of knowing I got through the worst segment and am on the finishing leg. There's something about knowing that the race is almost over that allows you to dig a little deeper and find reserves where there doesn't seem to be anything left. I'll be imagining floating along, attached by an invisible bungie cord attached to the approaching finish line. I'll pretend I'm riding a bike and try to keep my feet turning the invisible crank, efficiently circling with minimal energy loss. I'll be talking to my body, encouraging it, telling it that it's going to be okay and that there is more energy in there than it thinks. Just get to mile 24 and there will be only 2 left. At 24 then just get to 25. If I can get to 25 then I can certainly gut out the last mile. Right after mile 25 I cross under I-45, bend right and then turn left. All I have to do is get to the next left, run about half a mile, and then I'll turn onto the home stretch and can stretch my legs and try to finish with a bit of a kick across the line. At this point there's no need to hold back. Who cares about the heart rate, because once I cross the line then I can stop. As I turn onto the final stretch the clock will be reading 3:55. Just 5 minutes left. As I watch the seconds and minutes count up, the line approaches, faster and faster, as I race to cross the red mats before that hour digit changes from 3 to 4. My legs pump faster, I drive with my arms, I'm breathing in and out with each step, spit is flying from my mouth with each explosive exhale, and my heart feels like it is ready to explode from my chest as I cross the line with 3:59 showing on the clock.
You know. It could happen.
I'm pretty optimistic because my runs this month have really fallen into place and my legs have started feeling really good. My only concern is my left calf, but I think that the taper will allow it to fully recover so it can withstand the race.
If you're reading this and happen to be in Houston, drop a line and maybe we can do lunch on Saturday January 12.