The Last Hard Run

Back when marathon training was just a concept and not a thing I was actually doing, I expected that eventually I’d get around to running some miles at marathon pace during my long runs. That assumed, of course, that I’d figure out what a marathon pace might be. In reality, I’ve been running my longest runs at whatever pace lets me get them done — usually a steady 10:30 or thereabouts. I’ve occasionally ended faster than that but only by a fluke of terrain; my most common route ends with 1.5 miles downhill.

I know I could, and theoretically should be able to, run faster than my long-run training pace on September 30, with race-day enthusiasm and post-taper legs on my side. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. I’m scared of going out faster than I’m used to running and burning out, because I don’t have a huge mileage base in reserve and especially because my main goal is to finish happy. But I also don’t want to sell myself short; I’ve trained for this thing to the best of my current abilities, and I want to be proud of my race.

So on Sunday, for (probably) my last double-digit run before Berlin, I wanted to play with my pace a little. The plan: Run 12 miles on the flattest route I could find, with the first six at 10:30 and the second six at “something faster than that.” Twelve miles is not 26.2 and running for two hours is not running for four-plus, but I still wanted to know what it would feel like to start easy and end harder. I guess I really just wanted to find out if I could.

The results were … not what I was expecting. And I’m sure there’s a lesson in here, but I don’t know what it is.

I couldn’t figure out where in San Francisco to run 12 flat miles, so I decided on a figure-eight of three-mile loops (for San Francisco runners or those who just want to be, I did: Ferry Building to AT&T Park to Ferry Building to Pier 39 to Ferry Building; repeat). Even though I didn’t start till after 1 p.m. on a gorgeous day, I got fairly lucky with crowds, and only the last half-mile near Pier 39 was packed enough to make me ragey. And while there’s little I hate more than running loops, I figured it would be a good mental test.

From the start, I had a tough time finding 10:30 pace. It certainly didn’t feel effortless; I expected I’d be using my watch to make sure I was running easy enough, but instead, I kept watching my pace creep slower. At the three-mile mark, I thought, “I would like to be done now.” At the five-mile mark, I ate a Gu and tried to think about something other than all the reasons I was manufacturing for why it would be OK to bail on the “hard part” of the run, since this was plenty hard already.

At mile six, I decided I had a little more in me, but I wasn’t sure at what pace, so I figured I’d run a little harder, see what that meant for the next mile, and try to hold that pace through the end of the run. Based on feel, I thought the first faster mile would come in around 10 minutes, but my watch beeped 9:40. Huh. The next one: 9:49. Then 9:16. And all the nonsense in my brain got replaced with a new motto: “You’re stronger than you think you are.”

It wasn’t a slam dunk. There was a point in the fourth faster mile when the wind — which had been at my back for a while — shifted to a stiff headwind, and I caught myself saying “no. no. no.” out loud. And there was another point in the last mile when I thought my stomach was going to rebel and I could just walk for a while and really, wasn’t five faster miles enough? But I made it through them all: 9:41, 9:40, 9:43. And this is the weirdest part: The six faster miles felt no harder than the slower miles. In some ways, they felt easier. Less sustainable, maybe; I don’t know how many more miles I’d have been able to hit at that pace yesterday. But I felt like a much stronger runner at 9:40/mile pace than I did at 10:30/mile.

I think I’m supposed to learn something from this, but I’m really not sure what. I don’t think it’s “Go try to run a marathon at 9:40 pace.” But it could be that holding back can be just as rough as pushing hard. Maybe it’s that my default tendency is to run with a little bit left in the tank, and I can draw on that in Berlin. Maybe it’s something else entirely; your theories are welcome.

Or maybe it was just a good run where my body told my brain to shut it. If that’s all, it’s still cool.

Minutiae:

  • Final stats: 12.05 miles in 2:01:18, 10:04/mile. Split as first six miles in 1:02:47 (10:28/mile average), second six miles in 57:49 (9:38/mile average).
  • This was a weird time of day for me to run; I started a little after 1 p.m., following a night of wedding dancing, a brunch, and a lengthy (and often nauseating) drive back to the city. Not exactly ideal, but apparently the “Guatemalan Scramble” I ate at a Stinson Beach cafe was pretty decent pre-run fuel.
  • After feeling like a camel last week with my 22-ounce handheld and five snacks, it was SO nice to go for a run with only my mini water bottle and one Gu. (I took some chomps with me too, just in case.)
  • It’s crazy to think that the next time I run double digits, it could be in the marathon. I only have eight miles on the schedule for next week, though I might run 10 (for one last trip to the ocean) if the weather is nice and I’m feeling it. Basically, I’m going to let the taper tell me what to do.
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8 thoughts on “The Last Hard Run

  1. Jen says:

    Funny, I have many of the same issues with pacing. I’ve recently realized that, for my easy and long runs, I start off at a very slow pace and even though I don’t feel like it’s getting easier, I end up running 30-60 seconds faster. Weird.

    It might be too late to incorporate this into your marathon training, but have you read “Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel” by Matt Fitzgerald? I really recommend it. Here’s a little ‘book review’ I wrote about it:
    https://jensrunningblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/book-review-run-by-matt-fitzgerald/

    • kimretta says:

      ooh – I have not, but I will definitely check it out. It sounds like something I could use! I have noticed that when I do speedwork (well, when I used to do speedwork), my “easy” pace for my cooldown home is way, way faster than my “easy” pace for the warm-up to the track, which is interesting to me. I don’t know if it tricks my body or my brain! (probably both.)

  2. hooray for the last run being done! I it’s a good sign you felt better at a faster pace. I feel similar during long runs when I speed it up a bit and am always surprised at how it does not seem harder than the slower pace I was running at before. I think sometime we just don’t think to go faster? Or that we just think too much about stuff sometimes. I’m not sure. 🙂

  3. Kristina says:

    I have no theory, except that I do think that running faster = way more fun. I know that a lot of people swear by the walk/run or run/walk method, and I’ve walked in my fair share of races (Wildflower Tri, for instance), but it is so damn fun to go faster!
    Not that I’m suggesting anything for you, but I thought that I’d toss out that random non-theory.
    Keep enjoying the taper, by the way!

    • kimretta says:

      I always find it so hard to start running again after walking! I’m actually glad I walked a little on my 22-miler just to prove I *could* run again after it, but it becomes so much more of a mental battle. Thanks for the theory!

  4. katie says:

    I say hooray as well! Enjoy the taper and don’t think too hard about it. 🙂

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