Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Do You Deal with a Bad Race? St. Louis RNR Marathon

(Originally Posted on Runners World Loop 10/25/11)
This blog was supposed to be about my 4th marathon of 2011, yesterday’s Rock’n’Roll St. Louis Marathon. I’ll report on the race, but I suspect I’ll also morph into some self-reflection about why the race did not go according to plan, and how a runner deals with the inevitable bad race.
I’m one of those runners who constantly monitors data points, logging my GPS daily along with several other stats. As I approached race week, I had some conflicting indicators that made it hard for me to predict how I’d do. On the positive side, my running training had pretty much gone according to plan for the past few months, and my time of 1:26:46 in the half marathon on October 9th, on a course with a big hill, encouraged me. On the negative side, my workload in the month prior to October 17th was quite heavy, I was skipping most of my scheduled core and arm workouts, and I was getting nowhere near enough sleep.
So, I found myself less than a week before the race without much confidence in what my time would be. I thought that I might be able to run sub-3 hours if I could rest up for a few days, but I also thought I might go slower.
I flew to St. Louis on Thursday, October 20th. A lady sitting next to me was coughing the whole way, but I didn’t think it was likely to be an issue. I was excited to discover that game #2 of the World Series was being played at Busch Stadium, only a few blocks from my hotel! I arrived in time to do a short run and really had some fun, running past the crowds of red-attired St. Louis Cardinals fans, then down to the Arch, and eventually past a bunch of tents at the “Occupy St. Louis” protest. I took my camera with me and snapped a few photos:
St. Louis is a beautiful city to run in, I could post a full photo album here.
Friday was Expo day. I picked up my race packet and felt good that I was assigned to corral #1, with a bib #1079. The expo was smaller than other RNR expo’s I’ve been to, but I enjoyed visiting the booths and taking in the whole aura of marathon weekend. The event was sold out, with over 21,000 runners registered (the majority for the half, with about 4,500 full marathoners). I also rested a LOT on Friday, but can’t say I slept well.
On Saturday I took another shake-out jog, checking out the start- and finish-line area along the way. I decided to wander down to the expo one more time, since it was near a Subway shop (my pre-race-day lunch favorite is a foot long from Subway). While I was there, I noticed that the TV show, “America’s Got Talent”, was auditioning in other rooms in the convention hall. I was accosted by security guards when I tried to snap a picture of their sign – which I thought was ridiculous, you’d think they would be pleased to get some free publicity. When I got back to my hotel, I prepared all my gear on Saturday evening and tried to go to bed early.
St. Louis is currently 2 hours ahead of Tucson, so it wasn’t easy to get to sleep early. To make things worse, there was a group of young ladies on my floor who thought it was quite fun to run down the hall singing songs from The Wizard of Oz all night long; it seemed like every hour or so, I was awakened to thumping feet and high-pitched song as they made the rounds. Could have been fun another time, but the night before a marathon wasn’t really the best time for this sort of rowdiness.
Nevertheless, on race morning I was feeling good, my legs were not sore and I was feeling confident. The weather prediction was for warm temperatures, and I didn’t need any gloves or sweatshirt at the start line, but it was cool enough to seem like a good day to run. I had some sniffles but figured it was just the cool, damp air. I arrived early, ready for a good run. So I decided to go for the sub-3 time.
The gun went off about 7:35, a few minutes late. The first couple of miles were mostly downhill and I decided to take advantage of that, so I hit the 5k split at 20:11. I slowed a little bit after that and hit 10k at 40:33. I was ahead of goal pace, so I slowed a bit more and at the half-marathon I was down to a 6:39 pace, at 1:27:07. I was enjoying the race, and had run the first half with the first place woman; this meant that there was a bicycle alongside us, and tons of spectators calling out to her to let her know that she was in the lead. I was noticing, though, that the course seemed to be far hillier than the elevation chart on the RNR website suggested (probably just the result of smoothing). In fact, I would say that this course was hillier than the San Francisco Marathon course!  Here is the elevation chart from the RNR website:
The next split recorded was at 16.4 miles, and I had slowed again, but still was at an average pace that could have earned me the sub-3. But I already knew that was not going to happen, as I was starting to feel bad. My nose had been running the entire race, and splashing it off with water at the aid stations was not helping. By mile 17, the “wheels came off”; I had to take a short walking break, and the next 3 miles were at about a 9-minute mile pace. I hit the 20-mile split at 2:24:44 and knew that my day was over (in fact, if I were an elite, I’m sure I would have dropped before then). But I was determined to slog along, even though my legs basically had experienced what I call “mobility meltdown” – they were pretty much on strike, not just from running but they really did not want to move at all. It was so disheartening, and although plenty of spectators tried to encourage me to push ahead I really just wanted to lay down and fall asleep.
Somehow I did manage to run & walk the remaining distance, and crossed the line in 3:44:47. I chugged a couple of Cytomax drinks, ate a banana, and got my gear bag. I put on all my warm clothes, and also used one of the heat wrap blankets that they give at the finish, but I was shaking from being so cold – even though it looked like nobody else was cold.  I was soaking wet, and to me, it felt like it was freezing. I wanted to crawl back to my hotel but there was a post-race concert getting started so I hung around and actually did enjoy listening to Sugar Ray for about an hour.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing in my hotel room, except for a short walk to the Hard Rock Café for dinner. My legs had recovered but my energy wasn’t there, and the sniffles were. Today, I’m travelling home (writing this in the airport waiting for my second flight), but it’s not much fun – I’m dealing with a fever, headache, and runny nose. Yesterday, I thought that that the hilly course combined with my overall fatigue got me, but today I’m wondering. I don’t know if the illness caused my meltdown yesterday (I’d like to think so), or if my fatigue level reached a point during the race where my immune system just gave up. Either way, I know I’ll recover quickly.
I always self-evaluate after a big race, documenting what went well and what didn’t, to help me prepare for more races in the future. This time the lists will be longer.   The problem is that some factors that affect performance are not entirely within my control. For example, my heavy workload is partially the result of the deadlines imposed as a result of my profession; I can’t change them, so the only way to control that factor would be to avoid races near the deadlines. Another uncontrollable factor is exposure to germs and others who are sick. I try to keep myself healthy, and it is rare for me to be ill, but when you go on an airplane there is simply no way to prevent exposure when everyone is crammed in to such close quarters.
There are plenty of risks involved with running, and runners are likely to have their performance affected occasionally. It’s mentally hard to have a bad race, especially one that you have invested substantial time and money into, like an out-of-town marathon. (By the way, a “bad race” is certainly self-defined and unique to each person; my definition would simply be one in which you know you did not perform near the maximum of your own personal abilities, regardless of others’ times. Please don’t think that I am saying that a 3:45 marathon is a bad time – it’s just not representative of a serious effort for me personally, at this time of my life. In fact, I ran a 3:45 many years ago and at that time, I was thrilled with it. My main criteria for a good race is that the runner gave the best effort possible throughout the event).
Some clear take-aways from this race for me: 1) Try to get proper sleep, always; 2) Don't sacrifice the core workouts, they are critical to running well; 3) If I’m not feeling absolutely confident heading in to race week, go with the less-ambitious plan; and 4) Sometimes it just doesn’t go well, in which case it makes sense to call it a training run and enjoy it.
After a bad race, I experience plenty of emotional negatives – self-doubts, discouragement, disappointment, general negativity. I try to overcome these by thinking about the positive effects of a poor performance; it can, after all, lead you to change certain factors to avoid a repeat in the future. It makes you appreciate even more when things do go right. But the deflation that occurs takes a while to beat, no matter how much you try to work it out. I’d love to hear comments from anyone else on how to deal with the depression that follows a poor performance.
I think what I really need is a good run – but I’ll wait a few days before lacing up. Meanwhile, I can look at my new race bling and remind myself that I earned it!
By the way, I intend to get my revenge on the marathon in Las Vegas in 6 weeks. Training is going well, yesterday I had a nice long training run…
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