Taking on the LA Marathon
I have a love hate relationship with the Los Angeles Marathon. It was my first ever marathon so it is special. However, my memories of this race are anything but fond. For someone who has a poor memory, I recall one time running this race for more than five painful hours. Another resulted in a DNF due to hypothermia. I probably did it one more time just for kicks but the finishing time wasn’t worth the neural connections in my crowded brain. I do remember well that it rained for 2 of those times. Not fun.
One might wonder, why am I subjecting myself to this torture again? Things are different this time…right 😃 For context, I had done the California International Marathon in 3:16:22 in 2014- not good enough to quality for Boston. Was I capable of qualifying? Maybe. And I was going to find out.
After racing Ironman Arizona in November, I deliberated on whether to sign up for the LAM. Switching my focus to a marathon soon after could prevent the post-Ironman blues. There also wasn't another well supported marathon for a while. After talking to my high school buddy Rob, we decided to go for it- for him, maybe another sub 3 hour effort (overachiever!); for me, a potential BQ.
Going from Ironman training to marathon training was more difficult than I had anticipated. I was used to giving my mind and parts of my body a break through three sports. Now it was a singular focus, which got boring and repetitive quickly to the point where I started reading a book called Run Less Run Faster (by Bill Pierce)- yes, I wish! The premise of the book was not actually shocking to anyone who has followed structured training before. It recommended 3 types of runs per week: speed work, tempo run, and a long run. In between those days, one can substitute swimming or cycling. I personally don’t recommend this approach unless 1) you are an experienced runner, and 2) you have a strong base established for the season. The biggest change for me was pace. In Ironman training, my runs were within my aerobic threshold of 8:30. Now I was doing runs at 7:00-7:25. This was a shock to the system and put some doubt in my mind as to “how am I going to be able to hold a 7:25 pace for 26 miles when I haven’t done that, ever?” My tempo and fartlek runs were on asphalt. For the long runs, I would do about 13 on asphalt then meet up with a group of friends for a trail run to get to 18-20 miles. These runs were done in HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 2’s, one of my favorite shoes.
About 6 weeks into this training, I started feeling some pain in my tibia. After a couple of runs like this, I immediately put the brakes on my training. I knew the pain too well (took a few months off the year before from a fibular stress fracture, and many times before with the tibia). I got back to it slowly with some 3 mile jogs. Now it was T-4 weeks to the marathon and I was freaking out- silently of course. Questions ran through my mind- “Am I going to be able to train pain/injury-free? Am I going to finish? Should I even bother running it or quit now and not risk ruining the year with an injury?” Qualifying for Boston was nowhere in my thinking at this point.
I thought through what I could do differently to still train and it came down to tweaking my biomechanics through more medial support from insoles and trying a more structured shoe. This time, I went with the HOKA ONE ONE Bondi 4 (2 oz heavier). This shoe has more structure, more medial support and similar cushioning. I had a good feeling that this change could be it because when I did an A/B test with the Clifton’s vs Bondi, the difference was pain vs no pain- it was that dramatic. With this, and rest for a week, I resumed to rebuild my miles slowly and did everything I knew to do to prevent stress fractures. I started running on treadmills (at work and in hotels when I traveled) to get more miles in and give my bones a break. With two weeks to race day, the longest run I got back up to was 9 miles. Nine freaking miles! Clearly, I got the "Run Less" part of the book down but I was NOT going faster. In fact, most of my runs were between 8-9:30 min/miles. Instead of more miles, I did a lot of visualization and also preparing mentally for the tough miles at the back end of the marathon. I had to make a decision for my last week before the race- start to taper (I think I was already there…) or get some long runs in so that I could remind my body of the fatigue. I decided on the latter, logging (cramming) a 15 mile run mid-week and 20 miles 8 days before race day. Tired? Yeah, a little. It might have been the dumbest thing to do, but hey, 26.2 miles was just another long run right?
Lesson: Stop when you feel pain. Figure it out and correct before resuming.
Ready or not, here we go!
I woke up at 3am, not able to sleep anymore so I got changed, lubed up with Body Glide and stretched out. I had a cup of coffee, some King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls, half a bottle of gatorade, a banana, and a Clif bar. At 4:45, Rob picked me up from my hotel. When we got into LA, we drove around looking for parking. We had luck on our side and found parking across the street from Dodger Stadium and the Starting Line. For real! We walked around the starting line area, made some pit stops. One of the things I really liked about the LAM was the seeded corrals. Based on your previous marathon times, they will put you in different waves. Even though other races also do this, LAM had each section separated and security checking your bib to make sure you belong in there.
For old times sake, my friend Rob decided to line up in my corral. Before the gun went off, we took a selfie, reminiscing the last time we ran the LAM together which was 20 years ago! When we talked race strategy, my plan was to stay with the 3:15 pacer holding the 7:25 pace until the wheels fell off the wagon. Rob’s strategy was to start with me and then take off to go hard for as long as he could to see how he was going to do. He was shooting for maybe 3-3:05.
The gun went off and we started going down this hill- it felt great, as all races do at the beginning 😃 . Quickly, I realized that the 3:15 pacer guy was going about an 8 minute pace, ON A DOWNHILL! I felt robbed. This course has a net negative elevation but it really happens only in 3 spots. This was one of them!
Rob and I looked at each other and I said, “screw it, let’s go”. The first mile split was about 7:49 so we already had some time to make up. For the first 12 miles, I was feeling great so we ramped it up and probably averaged 7:18 min/mile (not including the first mile). We ran through some really interesting neighborhoods where I made fun about some of the names of the stores in the area. Rob was probably thinking- “Why don’t you just focus on running the race instead of chit chatting cause you’re going to feel it soon.” The whole time, I was religious in eating a gel every 35 minutes and getting a sip of water or gatorade at every other water stop. The second “dip” came at mile 15 which gave me a nice 6:48 pace- yippee! At mile 20 I got to see Team Chi, my cheering squad, and gave them high fives. That was super energizing, but it also came at a time where there were some hills. Before I knew it, we were at 22 and I remember Rob saying to me “Sam, you’re going to make it. You have time in the bank!” I could believe it but I couldn’t. I felt good before up until this point but it’s also an inflection point for many people including myself where everything can go downhill very quickly. As I spaced out and started getting quiet (that’s when you know you’re approaching the danger zone), Rob’s friends Steve and Ravi came out of nowhere and started pacing us- whoa! I had met Steve before at Ironman Arizona and it was great to meet Ravi. So you ask- what is the benefit of having pacers? As my form started to break down, seeing other people running with fresh legs helped remind me to maintain form and use my arms. The visual of someone running strong also helped. It has the same positive effect as seeing yourself lift weights in the mirror. Lastly, there’s the camaraderie and the verbal encouragements. As we approached mile 25, Steve and Ravi peeled off and I knew that I was almost there. This is the third and final “dip”. We maintained a 7:19 pace at this point. Coming down the stretch to the finish, I could not believe what was about to happen- Rob and I crossed the finish line together at 3:12:26, a PR and a BQ! I came into this race with the goal of 1) finishing and 2) a time of 3:20-3:22. This was an unbelievable result given how little speed training I did and the extremely limited training due to the pain. Thanks Steve and Ravi for keeping us going during those last critical miles! Thanks Rob for sticking with me for 26.2 miles and helping me believe that this was possible!
Lesson: Strategically plan things along the course to get some energy boosts when you need it most (family/friends cheering and people willing to pace you)
In summary, here are a few things (not in any particular order) that I felt helped me achieve a better outcome than expected:
- Build a strong base
- Listen to your body
- Work on the mental game
- Ask yourself the question- how badly do you want it?
I learned many of these lessons the hard way before and I have gotten a little smarter. By applying these learnings during my preparation and the race, it helped me tremendously. I hope you will benefit from some of this information. I would love to hear your marathon experience in the comments below!
Boston Marathon 2017, here I come!