Let me start with a confession: this whole premise is a lie.
I did not, in fact, participate in the Zooma half-marathon, held yesterday in the hinterlands of Austin. I registered for it, got my race packet, the whole thing. And I did assault a half-marathon distance on the appointed day. But I didn’t go to the Zooma race as planned.
There are two key reasons for this — which dawned on me only when I received my race packet in the mail:
- Because of parking limitations at the resort where the race is held, there was no way to park at the event, or for my family to park at the event. Practically speaking, this meant that no one I knew would be waiting for me when I was done. That was a big deal to my wife last year when she finished her first half-marathon — having me and the kids at the finish line. It was a key part of the race-day experience that I was looking for.
- Again because of the parking thing, I would need to be up somewhat before 5 a.m. on Saturday to drive to an airport parking lot, so that I could then take a 40-minute shuttle-bus ride to the race site, so that I could wait an hour for the race to start. And then I would repeat the shuttle process when the race was over. This may sound like the griping of a lazy person. If it is, that’s fine by me. Either way, it would have been a schlep, and no mistake.
What I wanted was to run the distance and have a fun experience. The logistics of this particular race, since it didn’t occur to me at the right time to book a room at the resort for my family, carved away too much of the fun and made it seem too much like work — and not the hard work of running that was the point of the whole thing.
When I shared these reasons with a colleague of mine on Friday, he tried to ride me about them. He’s a veteran of many triathlons, including more than one Ironman, and he cannot imagine being dissuaded from race day by such trivial factors as these. Which is fine . . . for him. I imagine my main running instigator — herself the veteran of several half-marathons, and in training for her first marathon — might want to ride me the same way. But I simply don’t care that much about the race-day experience. I thought I did — but it turns out I don’t. So that’s Lesson #1. YMMV.
My Own Private Half-Marathon
My wife helped me to hatch an alternative plan. One of the loops of the hike-and-bike trail around Town Lake, from the MoPac bridge to the I-35 bridge, is just under 7 miles. So two loops is about 14 miles — 13.8, to be exact. Run two loops, and you’ve done a half-marathon with 0.7 miles of sugar on top.
I got up at an early but reasonable time, ate a good breakfast (a mix of complex and simple carbs, plenty of fluids), and parked under the MoPac bridge in the middle of a beautiful spring morning.
I decided not to time myself closely. Running the distance in 2:20 versus 2:21 didn’t mean anything to me, and I wanted to enjoy the experience at a steady cruising pace.
The first lap went fine, as did the outbound leg of the second lap. I was taking gulps of water and Gatorade at regular intervals and making good progress. I had gone more than 11 miles by the 2:05 mark (I passed a building with a clock on its face), and I was even thinking of putting a flourish on the day with an extra couple of miles at the end of the second lap. After all, if you’re going to run 13.8 miles, why not make it an even 15?
Then things got much, much harder, very quickly.
I’ve hit the wall before in running. I had run 11 miles just two weeks before, and although this was going to be — and indeed was — my longest run ever, I’m no stranger to running for a couple of hours at a time. I was fueled and ready, the weather wasn’t too hot . . . but my condition declined in a hurry.
Finding My Real-Life Limitations
I made it as far an the Congress Avenue bridge on willpower, and purposed to run on from there at least as far as the First Avenue bridge. But then my body stopped answering the bell. My legs had tightened up to the point that I couldn’t run. It wasn’t about willpower or pain tolerance at that point — they wouldn’t fire properly.
So I shuffled along, trying to maintain a good cadence. I thought I’d walk to the First Avenue bridge, then jog to the next bridge. Maybe that way I’d cover the last couple of miles at some reasonable pace.
Why did it happen? In retrospect — given how much fluid I’ve needed in the past 30 hours to recover from this run — I believe I was dehydrated. For years I’ve had problems with my calves, the worst of which came five summers ago when I tore the medial head of the gastrocnemius muscle in my left leg. My right gastroc gives me fits, too, and I do every long run, including this one, wearing calf sleeves.
But yesterday my right soleus and achilles tendon started cramping, harder than I’ve ever experienced. Then, as I walked gingerly along, all of my calf and hamstring muscles felt like they had turned to fiberglass.
It was physically painful, but more than that it was frustrating. I had rolled my muscles like a good trainee. I had tapered properly with my previous long run. I was well-fueled and well-rested. I thought I had taken in plenty of fluids.
And yet I crashed and burned.
A “Learning Experience”
A CEO I used to work for had an upbeat, albeit smart-assed, way of referring to outright failures as “learning experiences.” That’s what this was. I limped along those last two miles, taking more water at every fountain and stopping several times to rest. Even at my worst, I’ve always been able to keep walking, but not this time. I squatted and stretched to get some of the knots out of my soleus. I took deep breaths and tried to loosen up my shoulders and back and well as my legs. But mostly I just suffered through.
What, specifically, did I learn?
- I didn’t miss being involved in the race. As already mentioned, I don’t care that much about a racing environment. Until I hit the wall, I was having a great time seeing other runners, parents with babies in strollers, people walking their dogs, and so on. I was enjoying the breeze and the sunshine and the lakeside views of my fair city. I’m sure I will care about the race-day environment when it’s a marathon, or an ultra, or maybe an adventure race. But for a 13.1-mile run, I don’t care enough about the race itself if there’s too much logistical friction. (Would a race environment have helped me yesterday? Who knows?)
- Better hydration is a must. I think I drank plenty during the run. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink enough in the 24 hours before I started the run. Duly noted.
- More base runs are a must. While I did ratchet up my weekly long runs to put me within striking distance of 13.1, I let my work schedule get the better of me over the past few weeks in terms of my shorter weekday runs. I did some good hill climbs, but not enough of the base mileage runs that I needed to build up my strength for this.
- I’m just nowhere near as fit as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up, but facts are facts: I thought it would require a solid effort to run 13.8 miles, but I figured I would do it smoothly, without stopping, and without agony. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
- More effort — and especially more consistency — is required. It’s not enough to work hard, or to work hard most of the time. You have to train for the purpose at hand. Obviously I didn’t, or the outcome would have been different.
While it would have been a lot more fun to finish the 13.8 (or 13.1) without learning these lessons — or feeling as miserable as I have ever felt while running — at least I genuinely learned these lessons at first hand. It’s one thing to understand something in the abstract, but something else again to know it experientially. I’ve been guilty of thinking that my abstract knowledge was an adequate substitute for first-hand experience more than a few . . . thousand . . . times in my life.
But now — at least for this one small subset of lessons — I know.