Saturday, September 24, 2011


"Damn, I knew I shouldn't have put in that two hour run this week. What's wrong with me.  AHHHH!!!!"

It’s 3 weeks to marathon day, and you just finished your last long run. You took your body to its limit. Your face is beat red from blood rushing through your body, the mitochondria in each of your cells has expanded and is carrying more energy than ever. Your legs are aching, thighs and calfs feel shredded, and stretched ligaments are begging for an ice bathe and some Ibuprofen. Your stomach demands some protein, or pizza, or some chocolate, and just when you think that you are done, you throw in a Five Guys cheeseburger (and the obligatory handful of peanuts while you wait) 

Three weeks to marathon day and now your real work begins.  Rest and taper.  I have heard it said that you are now at the point where there is nothing you can do this late that will improve your performance, but there is much you can do to hurt your performance and damage yourself.

The idea of a two week taper baffled me when I first heard it.  You mean I slow down for two weeks before I run such an event?  An event where people fear to tread, and I’m going to finish this event with a two week slow down?  Um, WTF?  But this was before I knew the science, or at least before I understood it.  Okay, better yet, before the science of tapering taught me many lessons.

After many trials and tribulations, I have come to fully believe in the full three week taper.  And I credit respecting the taper and obeying it fully for allowing me to finally qualify for Boston.  My last three weeks for my recent qualifier looked like this:  

*Three weeks before race date, 23 miles. 
*Two weeks before race date 13 miles.
*One week before race date, 8 miles. 

The rest of the runs were just fillers and all at 6 miles or under, and never two days in a row. I included some striders and some marathon pace miles, but always always holding back when the desire was to fly.

My second marathon, the first one that I ran for time, I was kicking ass in training.  If I wasn’t running miles, I was on the internet researching training plans  (um, this was before two kids).  I was doing many fast runs, and all the race predictors from the 10k’s and ten milers I had finished predicted a 3:05-3:10 marathon time. My mental drive was such that a bullet to the head would be all that could stop me. Two bullets. So, during the 20 mile training run 3 weeks out from the event, sponsored by a local running shoe store, I was going to see how ready I really was.  I basically raced the event, and did 20 miles at a 7:05 pace.  Hellz yeah!  And then a week later, because I was so tormented by the mental games of qualifying for boston and proving my worth, I slogged through another twenty miles, aching muscles and ligaments hurting, and then finally did a taper.

Then off to the Chicago Marathon, where I ran the first 20 miles on pace, but the last six, I was done. Shot. Splat. If I was in a Zombie movie, I would have been shot in the head, because I was a slow moving, leg ragged freak who almost had a DNF.  My thighs had such cramps in them they bulged in a way my wife will never forget. Ironically, it is still my PR at 3:16, but I know if I had trained better, I could have beat that time by ten minutes.

Still, I didn’t learn my lesson, but the lessons were beginning.

After training so hard, your body has been beat down, and you need to be 100 percent rested and healed in order to run your best, and I don’t mean injuries, although there is that too, I mean all the things you can’t see.  All the tiny tears and muscle rebuilding, not from your last long run, but from the last many months.  Think of it as a damn with an empty reservoir behind it, and you need to fill it up to the top until finally the damn breaks through with an incredible rush. Time it so that the break happens on marathon morning.

The problem is, you have been driving yourself so furiously for weeks, pushing yourself and fighting against any urge to slow, and now the goal is to push back against that drive, to resist the urge to go fast and long, and to instead rest and heal.  And the irony is, now that you have the reality of the upcoming race to worry about, you don’t have the relief of the same intensity of running. The worries mount, and your drug to cope is fading. Running is the ultimate high and rearranges all your brain cells and spiritual angst and emotional maladies and brings you back to a place of increase serenity, tranquility, and makes you feel like a kick-arse mudda fudder.  When you don’t have this, it will be a slight detox, and symptoms will appear.  Grogginess, crankiness, and the demons and gremlins of doubt will creep in.  You haven’t ran enough, you need to do more. You really think you can do this? You didn’t train enough. Better go take a run to see how fit you really are.
"Someone pause my Garmin."

Yes, Your taper brain will fu*ck with you (sorry, any other word besides the F-word would be an understatement) and make you doubt your abilities. It will find any small ache and pain in your body and blow it up into something huge and threatening.  The tiny ache on your knee, the hip that seems a bit crushed with your strides, or the calf that seems to pinch with every stride will feel so much more intense and be blown out of proportion.

 Beware of the mental drama and the chatter of ‘self-talk’ in your brain that threatens all you worked for.  It might go something like this:

I’ve recovered pretty quick, maybe I don’t need to taper as much as I thought.

Come on, three weeks of tapering?  Way too much. You have a friggin marathon to do, its dangerous for you to go out there and not train more. You want to embarrass yourself?  DNF? WTF? . You used to run right up until two weeks before the event, and now you’re getting lazy. You’ll lose so much fitness,

Yes, Your body will talk to you. It is a machine, an effective, lactic acid burning, heightened aerobic capacity machine. It has been molded it into something efficient and to take it for a run is blissful. It knows this, and will beg of you; “Don’t you want to go for a run and see what I can do, just a little test drive and rev your engines? Let’s  do some intervals or just see how effortlessly a ten mile marathon pace run has become. Like butter. Come on, it will feel so so good. You will love it, I promise. You know you want to.  Besides, see that extra pinch of flesh on your gut? You will be lugging that around for 26 miles if you don’t go burn some calories.”

Talk back, tell it no. No!  Don’t trust your gut in this one. Your gut and your body and your legs want to run. Trust your head. You might feel fresh and feel you are not exhausted now, but ‘you will be, you will be.’

Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone needs to taper for three weeks, but through experience, learn the kind of taper you need and follow it.  My mantra (plagiarized, of course) is that marathon training is an experiment of one, and the results you get will work for you and you alone.  For me, the results of the three week taper surprised the hell out of me, and if I doubt it, I only have to remember the last 6.2 of the marathons where I went Splat! When I was beaten down and dragging legs of dead weight the last miles and saw all those runners passing me by. Again and again, runners would shoot by me, my watch mocked me, and it took effort just to stop from walking and collapsing.  I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, and swore to the heavens “God, I promise, I will go to church and taper longer next time if you just help me finish this one.”

So, make a commitment to taper. A solid taper is the road to negative splits, which, to me, is like a powder day on a ski run, like a perfect rainbow on the ocean sky, like a hole in one in golf, and running free and steady and at an even pace, reeling in runner after runner, the last 6.2 miles of a marathon is, without a doubt, the best feeling (family events besides) I have ever experienced in my whole life.  It is the high and bliss of heaven to me and why I come back. And, I have experienced many of the highs life has to offer.

 Do other things to distract yourself, study the course, start pouring through your Netflix que. Go watch all those shows saved on your DVR.  If you want a great inspiring movie, watch the movie Saint Ralph  (you will cry if you have a heart) and keep your focus on the event.  Remind yourself, that if you have done the miles, then you will be fine.  And if you wished you had trained more, now is not the time to fit it in.  Just know that, if you have the balls to train for a marathon and then show up marathon morning, you will cross the finish line.

"The Jade Rabbit" - A story of a miraculous marathon run, by Mark Matthews

Stray, the novel on Amazon
Stray addicts and stray dogs, wandering the streets looking for salvation.


Jill said...

Loved this post! I'm sharing it with my TNT team. All of them are first-time marathoners. So they haven't worked a taper before. "Trust the Taper!" :)

Mary Ellen Magoc said...

When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door!

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