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Friday, May 4, 2012

The Last X Miles

No one is afraid of the first miles in a race.

Whether a seasoned marathon runner or a first-time 5K warrior, the opening steps are really never a cause for concern. Sure, if you're an elite runner, you might worry about tripping or getting stuck in the back of an early pack, but distance running is about just that: distance. The start is where it's still fun.

If I've learned anything from this training season, it's that I'm good through my first ten miles. Even last fall, when I was, quite frankly, not ready to run the Marine Corps Marathon, I felt good - great even - through the first 14 miles. And then, suddenly, everything went wrong. Exhaustion set in, and my muscles started to give out from underneath me. The start was great. It was the distance that killed me.

The trick, though, is knowing how to use that great feeling in the first few miles. When the adrenaline kicks in and you feel your mileage taper paying off, it's easy to feel like you're invincible. You're even impressed by your first few splits, thinking things like, "Wow, at this pace, I'm going to shatter my PR! I can't believe I'm this fast," which is probably because you're not. It is so easy to forget those later miles. You push ahead, knowing that this is your day. And then, without much warning at all, things start to unravel.

No, the key is to wait. Start slightly slower than you want to run, and let the beginning of your race be the warm up that it is meant to be. Whatever you do, do not exceed your desired pace. At least, not that early. It may, in fact, be your day for a great run, but a great finish relies on a reasonable start.

And visualization. You need to know that, late in the game, you've got the mental strength to make your body do what it believes to be impossible. This season, I'm doing something that I've never done before, at least not to the extent at which I'm now doing. Whatever distance I'm running, I imagine that I am doing the last (that many) miles of my race. Today, it was a little over six, which meant that I was imagining I had already completed 20 miles. I would like to thank yesterday's cross-training workout for helping with the authenticity of that level of pain.

On sore legs and with limited rest, I zoned out, imagining that every step was taking me closer to Notre Dame Stadium. Around corners I hadn't seen in a while, and finally up the last, oh-so-familiar mile home, I kept thinking about how I will feel just over four weeks from now, and how I can make myself go farther.

With only three quarters of a mile to go, I found myself running uphill, into the wind, in direct sunlight. It was less than fun, and I thought for a moment about taking a minute's refuge in the shade of a nearby tree. And then it washed over me. I wasn't a mile from home. I was in sight of the stadium, rounding corners I've turned a hundred times before. I was finishing my fifth marathon, in Boston Qualifying time. The pain was worth it, because I was doing exactly what I said I would do.

I did not really cross a finish line today, but I felt like I did. Through sore muscles, tough weather and long, routine miles, I felt a moment's rush of victory. The kind of rush that pumps you up just enough to keep going.

Just enough to finish the race again tomorrow.

Friday's workout:
80 degrees, got sunny by the end
6.75 miles

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