Mile 15. âI wonder if someone will take me back to the finish lineâ I thought. I gazed longingly at the spectators and those awesome moving couches they call cars. Five miles earlier I was seeing spots and almost threw up after definitely taking the biggest hill on the course waaayyyyy too hard. Judging from the way my lungs were trying to exit my body, I knew I had gone anaerobic and gone into an oxygen deficit that I could not recover from. I had burnt all my matches at Mile 11, and I was running on fumes.
Mile 15-Mile 21 was a six-mile long negotiation with myself not to quit. I have DNFâed (Did Not Finish) before and the poignant post-race feelings of regret and disappointment had lingered for a very long time. However, this time was different. I had already been so mentally checked out by then that, when I thought about how I would feel about DNFâing a week post-race, I knew it would only be with relief and acceptance. Perhaps the only thing that kept me going was the thought that, with a point-to-point race, waiting in the cold drizzle in wet, thin race clothes was worse than just walking it in.
At mile 21, the dreaded butt-clenching clouds of darkness descended upon me. My race had gone to shitâ¦ literally. I had to poop really badly. With 5 miles left and several aid stations between me and the finish, I did not figure it would be a big problem. Unbeknownst to me, I had just left the last aid station with porta-potties. I had to slow down to a shuffle as it is really hard to run when you have to poop (that has literally been the title of several of my Strava runs). There was not much foliage to duck into by the roadside and I would have been an easy spot with my bright race gear. This was just the final straw atop the big pile of hay-crap that broke my spirit and I just sighed at the absurdity of it all. I shuffled it in with a time of 3:22:21, a mediocre performance for me at best. I was just glad to be done and looking forward to the recovery.
So what had happened?
Stress is Stress is Stress
There is a saying that âThere is no such thing as overtraining, just under-recovering.â and the ability to train and recover is limited by stress, both mental and physical. It is easy to be cognizant of the physical stress but the mental stress is equally, if not more, debilitating and insidious. There is an endless list of the sources of stress but here are the ones that I would like to acknowledge affected me the most during this training cycle for this race and the ones that I want to talk about.
2. Lack of sleep
4. Race weight (and fueling)
5. The lack of a solid base
6. Lack of balance
7. The pressure of achievement and past comparisons
#1 - Work
Letâs start with work. For most people, work will usually be a source of some kind of stress. Working remotely meant traveling to the HQ once a month, which meant missing Sunday long runs and not sleeping well/much (flights from western Mass to Indiana usually involved waking up really early, like 5am, and getting back really late, i.e. after midnight). A new global company structure and being involved in a lot of various projects meant I was taking calls at 6 or 7am and or 5-6pm. This meant not doing a morning yoga, stretching or strengthening routine and, sometimes, missing out on an afternoon run. As the work piled on, I am someone who dwells on things so it was getting harder for me to compartmentalize and prevent work from impacting other facets of my life. The work-life balance was starting to become not so much of a balance. Maybe it is simply time management but I also felt mentally drained as there was not much opportunity for mental downtime. Running was not the mental outlet that it usually is (See #6 â The pressure of achievement). I could tell from the way my breath would not release my muscles during yoga that the tension in my body was building and it was hard to relax.
#2- Lack of Sleep
Recovery and sleep go hand-in-hand. Between allergies in the spring (See #4 â Weather), the dog being obnoxious in bed, mentally dwelling on work (#1) and training stuff (#6) as well as traveling meant I was getting less sleep, and, when I did get sleep, the quality of sleep was also usually compromised. Hence, I usually woke up tired, feeling less than optimally recovered and not very inclined to do much in the morning. Sleepytime tea did not really help and I was not sure if I wanted to resort to drugs like melatonin, etc.
The night before the marathon was probably the worst I have slept before any race. Nerves (#6), allergies and the feeling of an oncoming cold (that thankfully never materialized) kept me up and I slept fitfully. It was less than ideal for a prime race. I was a walking zombie.
#3 â Weather
I now know how dreadful it is to train for a spring race in New England. This past winter was, honestly, not that bad but we still had intermittent bouts of snow and, hence, quality running was sporadic. I looked forward to the gorgeous spring but the relief was fleeting. Whatever I was allergic to Indiana, I was allergic to here as well. With Spring in full bloom, so were my allergies. My car looked worse here than it did back in Indiana, like someone took yellow cornmeal and sifted it all over. Rain runoff dried into rivers of yellow paint on the pavement. I have never experienced asthma so I can only imagine what it feels like but trying to do workouts with all the pollen in the air made me feel pre-asthmatic. I am also mildly allergic to dogs so living with a shedding dog was just exacerbating my symptoms. Allergy symptoms most definitely stressed my system and impaired my ability to sleep and recover.
Â#4 â Race Weight (and fueling)
This is where I start getting into the deep stuff. I will be honest â weight matters (depending on your goals, of course). When you are trying to run the fastest times at the limit of your physical capabilities over a distance as grueling as the marathon, every pound that you carry with you over that distance matters. Carrying over excess weight from the holidays, the lack of base and gorging myself on good meats in Patagonia meant I was starting my training macrocycle at 165lbs. At my best, when I hit my marathon 3:03 PR at Monumental, I was at a (comparatively) svelte 149lbs. When I did triathlon and set my 100-mile PR, I was also hovering in that region so I have always thought that to be my ideal race weight. Setting a goal to lose 16lbs in 16 weeks was probably (no, most definitely) too much of a stretch. To begin with, I am not a svelte guy, most definitely not built to the image of the stereotypical long-distance road runner. The table below is generated from a nifty Excel file that I got somewhere that calculates a whole bunch of stats based on evidence and study results from Jack Daniels and it shows how weight COULD affect your race times.
I generated this towards the end of my training cycle, just around the time I ran the Boston Marathon. At that time, I weighed about 156lbs and I estimated that, on a good day, I could run a 3:15 marathon. Dropping down to 149lbs COULD mean gaining another 7 minutes.
For a while, weight was dropping off well with the increase in volume and eating well but it started to plateau as the stress (and muscle) built and built. I am Malaysian and, if there is anything anyone knows about Malaysians, it is that we love to eat. If I were to ever die from one of the seven sins, it would most definitely be gluttony. Work stress (#1) and training stress (#6) meant finding comfort in food, with a little bit of ice cream at the end of dinner every day, accompanied by wine, beer and/or cider for some alcohol to take the edge off the dayâs stressed (New England has some tasty ciders. yum yum).
Eating is fuel and training well is absolutely dependent on good fuel. While I was eating healthy (and I donât count calories), in an effort to lose weight, I ran into issues with underfueling with the kind of food that my body needed to sustain the increased volume and tempo in my training. Salads, carrots, celery and hummus may be healthy for lunch but I soon found that I did not have the energy my speedwork and tempo runs required. Going back to more substantial meals gave me more energy to hit my workouts but it also meant my weight was stabilizing at around 155lbs, which is what I raced Sugarloaf at. The table haunted me. The lack of quality sleep probably also did not help my weight loss efforts. A vicious cycle it is.
#5 â Lack of a solid base
2017 may have been the year I let too many things slide. I was dealing with a series of injuries, work was stressful, we were moving to a different state and I was trying to negotiate a new remote arrangement at work. Other than my build-up to IT100 in April, I hovered around 30miles a week for the rest of the year, not having a fall race to train for. To compound that, injuries plagued me in the latter half of 2016, where I also did not run a fall race as work was getting really busy (#1), so my decline in base mileage probably started then. Without fall races to train for, the pressure was off for me to train, which I thought was okay as I had other mounting pressures from other sources to handle (#3). All in all, going into this training cycle, I did not have what I would consider a base, much less a good one, to build on.
In comparison, when I ran my 3:03 at Monumental in the fall, I had a solid base from IT100 training in the spring, which carried me through the summer and fall to prep me for grueling speedwork and tempo runs. Just for a numbers comparison, I had averaged 40-50 miles a week in the preceding 6 months before starting my training cycle for Monumental, whereas, here, I was still hovering around 30miles a week..
In hindsight, it was probably too ambitious to build both base and speed concurrently and it proved too much for my body and mind to handle. The lack of base meant I did not recover from my Boston Marathon training run well, when I had bounced back from the Mill Race Marathon relatively easily during my lead-up to Monumental. Towards the end, while I was able to hit similar (if not, slightly even better) splits in training than I had for Monumental, the efforts felt much harder than I thought they were supposed to.
#6 â Lack of balance
There was definitely a lack of balance this past spring. Previously, when training for Monumental, Sunday runs after my Saturday long runs involved lovely easy trail runs in Brown County with BARA folks, which were an amazing boon to the mental pressures of pace-hitting workouts and long runs. When I was not traveling on Sundays, I would try to get in runs on the road or rail trail to build up mileage, with the trails being snow-logged and all. I seriously miss those low-pressure fun runs and we should not take those for granted.
Monday and Friday climbing sessions, which were always a welcomed change of pace and body movement, were a thing of the past, what with not having a consistent climbing partner, the climbing gym being much further and winter making sloths of us all. With visits to the climbing gym being of limited prime time, using the workout room to use the treadmill to get in mileage took precedence over climbing. Building mileage was getting to me and, with the added logistics of getting to runnable terrain, running and hitting paces was starting to feel like a chore.
#7 â The Pressure of Self-Expectations and Past Comparisons
You probably have noticed by now that I have mentioned 3:03 and Monumental a lot in this post. After running 3:03 at Monumental in 2015, I had developed a new goal â to run a sub-3:00 marathon. The 3:03 had teased me into thinking that a sub-3:00 is tantalizingly within reach. Three minutes is only 6-7seconds per mile faster. No big deal, right? Thinking back, it seems so arbitrary but then again, arenât most personal goals things we set arbitrarily for ourselves?
This brings me to my last stress which was the internal pressure that I had set upon myself to achieve this arbitrary goal that I had set. Did it make me a better runner or a better person? Probably not but, similar to the 24-hour mark in 100-milers, I thought that breaking that sub-3:00 threshold would be a fitting symbol of achievement of my running âcareerâ. Is it appropriate to think that way? Maybe not, some sport psychologists may say, but I would say it is probably inherent in the Type A personalities that athletes embody and it is natural that thoughts like that would surface.
Soon, every workout became a comparison to similar workouts I did back in 2015. My weight also became another marker of comparison. If what I did back then worked, why wouldnât it work again? To some degree, it did. Through this training macrocycle, I hit 10K and half-marathon PRs. I was able to do mile repeats at a faster pace and I was able to come close to my previous tempo runs. My new burst of hitting milestones compounded my thinking - âI should be able to do this! I am running equal, if not better, than before and I still weigh more! (#4) I have wiggle room!â. Thus, I threw myself into more training, trying to do more workouts per week, 2 + 1long run per week, where previously I only did 1+1 long run. However, even though I was hitting (again, arbitrary) mid-term goals, I was also equally experiencing bad workouts, as you can see from many titles of my runs on Strava during the last few months. While these bad workouts were not consistent, they were often enough to affect my mental state, turning it into a teeter-totter of positives and negatives. It was only a few weeks post-Boston, when I realized that I was not recovered as well as I had hoped to be at that point, that I recognized my folly and scaled it back but it was too little, too late. The hole had been dug.
It was only post-Sugarloaf, upon some deep, dark introspection, that I realize that those thoughts, while motivating at the time, can be very dangerous and insidious as they come naturally and seem positive and driving. The weight of expectation can be very heavy indeed. Equally, if not more, heavy is the price of letting that weight affect you. I think all of this is doubly dangerous for goal-achieving distance runners as we are often walking this very fine line between fitness and overtraining and this just compounds the drive to do more. The slightest disturbance can easily tip the balance into an unrecoverable spiral of burnout. From my thoughts on race day, in hindsight, I was probably already burnt out before I even toed the starting line as I just wanted to be done with it. I was done with the pressure of achievement and self-expectation.
So what now?
This was a kick in the butt I needed and it showed me how important it is to maintain consistency over an extended period of time to build a solid base, especially for an effort, like a fast marathon, that is so heavily dependent on mileage and strength. This was a painful lesson but it was a lesson that I am thankful to experience as it will prove valuable for the future. I am thankful for a relatively successful training block and, to emphasize, in some ways, the build-up to the race was successful. I had hit several PRs and that is still a pretty cool thing that should be celebrated.
Even though I did not achieve the goal, even though it was a disappointing experience, the process and the journey is ultimately what is most important and being grateful and appreciative of everything about the process is what will keep me going. The training block was also successful in that I came out of it relatively physically unscathed and I am thankful that I now have a good solid base for ramping up my training for the Bear100 in September. Boasting a daunting 22,000 ft of elevation gain, the Bear100 is my main âAâ race for the year and will be the toughest 100-miler for me by far. Luckily, I can now get back into my beloved element of the woods and trails. I also love 100s as it is hard to build self-expectation of achievement into any type of race that has an average DNF rate of 33% (fake statistic! but it is not low for sure) and the main base goal is just to finish.
I did not hit my goal or achieve anything close to what I wanted but, after this deep reflection, (think pensive scene by a lakeside with a backdrop of mountains), I am okay with that. This setback does not mean I should stop trying to explore what my limits are or that I should not try to set lofty running goals, as the efforts will only build me into a better runner. The key thing to me is that I tried. The hardest part, but maybe the most important part, is that I keep trying.
Three (okay, maybe five) things I learnt (comments from Arielle)
1. Every training cycle and their starting point is different: make comparisons with caution and be cognizant of unrealistic/inappropriate comparisons
2. Casual group runs with friends help psychologically â not having a tight, friendly running group like BARA made it tough to go out for easy runs and fun runs
3. Communicate with partner for accountability (like âno ice cream after dinnerâ or âstop buying so much discounted cheeses so I can lose weight!â â¡ )
4. To not let my race results define me as a runner
5. Having both a spring and fall race help drive the motivation to keep up the mileage and consistency
Three (okay, maybe five) mistakes / things I would do differently
1. Be patient and consistent. Build base before building speed, try not to do both concurrently and MAINTAIN the base!
2. Find better balance between the types of running as well as non-running activities
3. I need to find better/more effective/efficient ways to relax and release tension
4. Overdoing it on the Euro/electro/dance music during training â Use performance boosters sparingly to prevent oversaturation and reduction of effectiveness. On race day, after everything went to the pits, I just felt annoyed by my music, rather than got pumped up.
5. Arielle comments to âMaintain a better diet that provides needed fuel while keeping weight downâ. Iâm sure that is appropriate but I think Iâm still too Malaysian for that. :P
Three things I think I did right and am proud of
1. Finishing the race - Not really a case of did right but proud of battling inner mind demons and just not quitting
2. Putting in the hard work for workouts â I am happy about my PRs and the hard work that went into them. I just need to be more strategic about targeting PRs.
3. Come out of all this wanting to shoot for sub-3:00 again someday. Will I get it or was that one day at Monumental in 2015 my once-in-a-lifetime âblaze of gloryâ? I will never know unless I keep trying to find out.
Trail/ultra runner, Designer, Foodie, Rock Climber, World Traveler, Triathlete, Level 1 RRCA-certified coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)