Monday, October 14, 2013

Cruise Control: An Air Force Marathon Race Report

This past September the GeekGrl and I ran the Air ForceMarathon.  This was our fourth military marathon in this the year of our Military Marathon Slam.  So far we have done the Navy Marathon, the Army Marathon, the National Guard Marathon and now the Air Force Marathon so now all we have left is the Marine Corps Marathon and the Slam will be complete.

For the Air Force Marathon we just did another quick flight out, race and turn around the next morning to fly home because it was all about getting the race and not seeing Dayton.  However, Dayton was a homecoming of sorts for both of us.  The GeekGrl‘s family was originally from Dayton and so growing up she went there for visits.  When I was in the Marine Corps I visited Dayton once to play in the Military National Rugby Championships but we were just there for the race, not a trip down memory lane.

I really wasn’t sure how I would do because my training has been very different this summer.  Originally I had planned on making a BQ attempt here because I knew it was a fairly fast course.  Had I been ready for a BQ attempt the weather would have been perfect but the course would have made it tough because of the big rollers at the beginning and end of the course and because of the crowding at the end of the race when the half-marathoners rejoined the marathoners for the last four miles or so.

As I’ve said in other posts I entered this season still pretty worn down from last year’s Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and I have steadfastly remained about 15 pounds up from what had become what I thought of as my race weight over the past couple years.  Throughout this season I have not been able to drop the weight and I haven’t really been able to get back on track with the big miles I’ve been running in the last couple years.  All I could seem to muster is 40 to 50 mile weeks though in the last three months leading up to this race I have been hitting 200 mile months.

Because of my higher weight and lower mileage I thought I might be able to maintain some speed by turning to weightlifting so I looked into different styles and found that Olympic weightlifting was considered best for runners.  At the end of May the GeekGrl and I joined an Olympic lifting class at a local Crossfit gym but the hours were really inconvenient and it was expensive relative to what we got.  I looked around and found one Olympic lifting gym in town that doesn’t advertise and doesn’t do anything to increase its membership.

The gym is in an industrial complex and is mostly set up for strength training for athletes from the University of New Mexico.  It is appointed with about 14 Olympic lifting platforms, each with its own squat rack, and all top of the line Eleiko bumper plates and bars.  The guy who runs it has been coaching Olympic Weightlifting for over 30 years coaches people like the GeekGrl and I in his spare time.  His day job is as a strength and conditioning coach at the University of New Mexico and has a level 4 coaching certification through USA Weightlifting, the highest level of certification possible.

We are really fortunate to have someone this experienced because Olympic Weightlifting is actually a pretty obscure sport.  There has been a recent explosion in “the lifts” thanks to the popularity Crossfit but in my very limited experience the Crossfit world really doesn’t know much about Olympic lifting and really only see it as another exercise, therefore, there are a lot of Crossfit gyms improperly teaching the lifts and there are a lot of athletes out there who are not really getting the benefits that the lifts can confer.  I am sure there are very good Olympic lifting coaches at some of the Crossfit gyms around the country but if you are considering it then I would say you should make sure and check the coaches background through the USA Weightlifting website and really make sure they know what they are doing and are experienced because, while the lifts can be great for developing explosive power and even stamina, they can also be great at developing injury.

My lifting coach likes to joke about wanting to ruin my running career in favor of me becoming a dedicated Olympic weightlifter he is sensitive to my goals and has the depth of experience as a long-time strength and conditioning coach to design an appropriate training regimen.  Without getting into it too much one alteration he has made in my lifting is that he has me doing a lot of split squats and when I am doing the snatch he has me use a split squat as opposed to the standard squat.  The split squat in particular is good for runners as it is essentially like doing lunges but it offers more benefit because since you are working with a barbell and weight you are building more strength in the legs and core.

 Because he has worked with athletes of all kinds he is also sensitive to the fact that a runner needs to develop strength evenly so he always has me double up on my sets whenever I am doing split squats and has me doing them leading with both legs.  This makes for a long workout day when I am doing snatches because I usually end up doing split squats both sides then overhead split squats both sides then snatches from the knee and then snatches from the ground, also both splitting on both sides.  The typical Oly lifter would only train from one side.  Actually, the typical Oly lifter would be doing a split snatch or split squats at all.  Apparently this is an old school way of doing things.  Back in the early 70’s it was noticed that all the best lifters in the world were using what today is considered the standard squat, feet parallel and about shoulder width apart, and so all the coaches started to switch to that style.  Before then people used either style and even earlier most people used the split, another advantage of having a really experienced coach.

Anyway, that’s what my training consisted of in preparation for this marathon, running six days a week with relatively low miles and Olympic lifting three to four days per week.  Throughout the summer I still never really lost any weight, maybe a pound or two, and I also never really ran fast because the squats really kept my legs fatigued.  My hope was that the added strength would make up for the lost mileage and that the principle of cumulative fatigue would work just as well when that fatigue was developed by combining some running with some weightlifting as opposed to all being generated though running.

I was not very confident coming into the race.  My training, at least in my own experience, was theoretical and the only real experiences I had was a disastrous half-marathon the weekend before the Air Force Marathon where I actually ended up struggling to the finish line.  However, despite my lack of confidence I didn’t want to completely throw in the towel.  I saw this as an experiment and so I wanted to see it through by trying to run the marathon well, not PR pace but well.

On race morning I still wasn’t sure what I would do but maybe 20 minutes before the start I decided to line up with the 3:45 pace group.  I strongly felt that anything in the 3:20’s was out of reach.  My marathon PR is a 3:28 and change and I ran that in peak condition on a largely downhill course.  I also thought that anything in the low 2:30s was out of reach because my second best of 3:32:02 was run on a flat course also while I was in great running condition.  I went with the 3:45 because I thought that would be a good strong time for me considering my current weight and training.

The starting gun went off and I eased into the run.  In the beginning of the race I actually started to fade back from the 3:45 pace group but I knew I was just warming up and when we hit the first big climb a little past mile one I started to gain ground and had caught the 3:45 pacer by the top of the climb.  My goal was not to actually run a 3:45 but to run as well as I could, 3:45 was just my best estimate of what I thought I might be able to pull off.  That being the case, as we started downhill I didn’t make any attempt to stick with the pace group I just focused on running comfortable.  My biggest concern was going out too fast.

The course itself was mostly unremarkable, not bad just a kind of standard but very runnable course.  The majority of the race takes place on Wright Patterson Air Force Base with a couple ventures off base.  One such venture is into the town of Fairborn where they had the “Fairborn Fly Zone.”  I really enjoyed the effort they made in creating the Fairborn Fly Zone.  It’s an out and back section that is maybe two miles in total length and it’s an area where there are lots of enthusiastic spectators, music and motivational signs.  It’s not the girls of Wellesley from the Boston marathon but then again, what is.  However, it was still energizing and a lot of fun to run.

As the miles clicked by I began to leave the 3:45 pace group farther behind and soon caught sight of the 3:40 pace group.  When I saw them I still felt really good and started to get excited thinking that maybe I could overtake them.  Instead of picking up my pace though I started telling myself “just engage the cruise control and run easy” because I knew that if I was already moving forward in the pack then with as much distance as was left I would most likely catch them before the end if I didn’t blow it by trying to overtake them too soon.  So, cruise control became my mantra and I had to repeat it to myself often because I continued to feel good and I continued to see other runners ahead of me as rabbits to be caught on my way to the 3:40 pace leader.

I can’t say for sure what mile it was but I finally caught the 3:40 pace leader and then passed him still at my nice, steady pace.  By now it was getting later into the race and I was flagging a bit but no more than normal, I was still feeling good and still repeating my mantra, cruise control.  Somewhere around mile 18 or 19 on an out and back section I finally caught sight of the 3:35 pace group and began to wonder if I could catch them but as before, I didn’t make any attempt to pick up my pace.

I had been very happy with my progress up to now and there’s no way I was going to blow it.  I have been at mile 20 in many marathons and know what it feels like.  I knew for a fact that the way I felt meant that I would finish ahead of the 3:40 group as long as I didn’t do anything stupid and from the perspective of “completing the experiment” trying to run faster would have been stupid because it would have messed up my data with an unwise move that even under the best circumstances would not have resulted in a PR much less a BQ.

I continued to plug along, continued to gain ground and continued to repeat to myself, “cruise control, nice and easy.”  When I finally hit mile 23 it was apparent that I wouldn’t catch the 3:35 group but I felt like I could pick up the pace a bit and still hang on to a sub 3:40.  I gave it as much extra gas as I could spare and allowed the discomfort of the last couple miles of a well-run marathon sweep over me.  I knew that despite my doubts my experiment had been a success.  I ended up running a 3:37:43, my fourth fastest marathon time.

My final thoughts and observations; I also ran my third fastest marathon time this year before I started the Olympic Weightlifting, a 3:37:26 at the Lincoln marathon, only 17 seconds faster.   However, that was an easier course and I was wrecked afterwards.  Looking back at my training plan for the year I can see that in the three weeks following the Lincoln marathon I ran 12 miles the first week, 28 miles the second week and 38 miles the third week.  I also made the notation “Something has to change; I need to re-boot my training program.”  After the Air Force Marathon, however, I was able to jump right back into training and the first week after I ran 62 miles, the second week out I ran 65 miles and the third week out I ran 61 miles.  Those miles also included a 12 mile race at the end of week two on Tesuque Peak in Santa Fe and a 34 mile ultra in Canyon De Chelly at the end of week three.

The combination of the running and Olympic weightlifting has made a huge difference for me.  I want to stress that I am not lifting heavy by any means, I am still too new to Olympic lifting to be able to push much weight while using good form.  I am probably maxing out my Snatches and Cleans at 45 kilograms, My Squats at 60 kilograms and my Romanian Deadlifts at maybe 70 kilograms.  However, even though I am using light weights my muscle strength and stamina is markedly improved in just three and a half months of lifting.  While I still don’t have the evidence, I do think that I am faster than my third fastest marathon time, which was also run with me weighing in at 210 pounds as opposed to the 195 pounds I ran my marathon PR and second fastest times.  I think that if I were back down to 195, despite the fact that I’m three years older, I could beat my marathon PR with my current combination of running and lifting.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll ever get that light again, at least not the way things are going now.  It was very hard to hit that low a weight and required a strict diet and running an average of about 250 miles per month.  I know that if I am going to get much faster, if I am going to hit another BQ time, in combination with the weightlifting I will need to lose a little weight, maybe get down to 205, run more and run faster more often than I do now.  Until then I don’t think I’ll run under 3:30 again but I feel certain that without the weightlifting my chances would pretty much be zero.

And so the experiment continues.  I continue to lift three to four times a week, usually four, and my mileage is up to averaging 60 plus miles per week.  The GeekGrl and I have the Marine Corps Marathon in just a couple weeks and that will be the next test in my new approach to training.  My plan is to line up with the 3:35 group and see what I can do.  Hopefully all turns out well.

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