Friday, August 03, 2007

The taper

Skip if non-sports-interested, this is long and earnest!

So this is a definition of the word taper that I was wholly unfamiliar with prior to my immersion in this whole insane training thing; there are all sorts of other things I have learned about which I greet with great enthusiasm ("high elbow recovery" is a favorite phrase for instance, and also a good thing when you can get it to happen, which is not always) but the taper is a slightly insanity-inducing phenomenon that I don't think anybody really enjoys.

Basically after training like a maniac for some months you wildly reduce all forms of exercise as you get close to your goal race; on the day, you are meant to feel absolutely full of beans and with very springy legs or what-have-you, but while you are tapering you have huge and distracting exercise withdrawal and it does not contribute to concentration or mental health!

This has been taper week for my goal race, the Nike half-marathon on Sunday. It's been a good training season--I'm going to run in quite a few more races over the rest of the calendar year (in fact, I am still faintly holding out hope that I might run the nine races I need to get a NYC marathon spot for next year, only I am disproportionately out of town for the short ones and in town only for the long ones!), but I won't be doing much if any race-specific training over the next few months. The priority following this race is (a) step up the swimming (b) maintain running fitness and continue to improve form and efficiency and (c) learn how to ride that bike properly so that I can decently race triathlons in 2007...

I've been obsessing all week about pacing and strategy. In shorter races, you can kind of wing it, run it based on perceived effort and then (since I am not far along from being a beginner I am still having a lot of improvement) be pleasantly "surprised" when you get a better time than you thought. This is not a wise strategy for a half-marathon...

So: thoughts.

I've done one half-marathon before, last November, but it was under extremely adverse conditions and I pretty much feel that my time doesn't "count"!

(NB what I thought was a thigh/groin muscle pull was actually a stress fracture. The next time I ran after that was on Feb. 15, for one mile on the treadmill, when the doctor had finally cleared me as good to go. The note in my running log: "A huge relief. Slightly uncomfortable but not actually painful; a few hours later, sort of 'itchy.' I feel calm, though..." I built back up incredibly cautiously, by teeny-tiny degrees; the first four-mile run was on March 12, for instance, the first six-mile run not till April 22. I did a 10K race on May 19, and it was super-enjoyable, totally at lactate threshold if you know what I'm saying, that is a stomach-churningly tough distance but very rewarding. The official return to non-injured running, I felt, and I was surprised and pleased to come in at an 8:44 mile pace, rather faster than anything I ran last fall due mostly to obsessive cross-training in the interim and to close attention to running form once I was allowed out again, as it were.)

I've been doing an actual half-marathon training program since May, plus quite a lot of cross-training (swimming, weights/core-type stuff, yoga), and both speed and fitness have definitely improved. I still have a lot more room for improvement--I am holding out for eight-minute miles in 2008 (Ed: Keep getting those dates wrong, it's wishful thinking!), I think it's definitely within my physical capabilities, not having that yet makes me self-critical--but I'm pleased with my progress.

(I've still only been running three days a week--the coach is a quality-over-quantity theorist, three days is cool with her half-marathon schedule, there was an optional fourth day but after trying it a couple times I realized I could only get away with it if I cut back on something else, or else I felt it in the formerly injured area, and it seemed to me better to keep the mix--swimming and yoga and strength training are all good...)

Now I'm going to be honest here about my goals for the race.

(Oh, and a huge amount depends on the weather. I had a ludicrously slow run yesterday evening, with a heart-rate as high as it would usually be for a super-intense workout, just because of the heat and humidity. It easily could slow you down as much as thirty seconds per mile if it's, say, mid-80s and 60% humidity as opposed to 70 and not so humid. And even that still feels pretty hot when you're running! If it's awful, I must just slow down and run and enjoy it. This is supposed to be enjoyable, I cannot sit around beating myself up if I don't go under two hours, if I can't do it then it will have been for some substantive good reason that was not overcome-able!)

This is the course--a perfect course for negative splits, since the first seven miles are hilly and the last six extremely flat.

(And it is going to be very very exciting to run through Times Square...)

The coach has come through with some goals that correspond extremely closely to what I believe I can actually do (weather permitting), and here they are. She categorizes time goals as acceptable, challenging and dream, and here they are.

Acceptable: 2:02 (9:20 pace)
Challenging: 1:59 (9:05 pace)
Dream: 1:56 (8:50 pace)

(For arbitrary but obvious reasons, 1:59:59 is more mentally acceptable than 2:00:01, but I will attempt not to get excessively sucked in to this line of thinking...)

I'm going for 1:58. Anything faster than that is icing. (I do like icing though!)

What this means for race strategy: run the first seven miles steady and a little slower, 9:00-9:10; run the last six 8:50-9:00ish. I think I can hold close to nine for the park loop-and-a-bit, especially because there are some lovely downhills in the last mile or so before you exit the park (one thing I have learned to love this summer is running fast downhill, I was very timid about it last fall in contrast; I have also learned a lot more about pacing). And I think I can run 8:45 on the flats. But I will have to be flexible and see! Also I must get some water into myself at the water stations and I think I'll stop and walk for a tiny bit as I'm coming out of the park, in order to get down a gel and a cup of water. It would be nice to do without the gel, I feel like it might be OK and you risk getting a bit of an upset stomach, but I have a strong suspicion that it will really aid in concentration and energy levels in the second half.

Running goals for 2008 (Ed.: I got the numbers all wrong on this the first time!):

Eight-minute miles on longish runs

Race a four-mile race below 8:00 pace

Race a half-marathon in the 1:40s rather than the 1:50s

Run my first marathon more or less injury-free and as close to four hours as possible (below that if possible, of course, that is everyone at my sort of speed level's dream goal, but it may not be a conservative enough goal for my first time, I can see even now that it makes more sense to do a 4:15 and then a 4:05 and then a 3:57 rather than to aim right out of the gate at 3:57 but crash in the second half of the race...)

I am still having strong mental pangs about not doing a marathon this fall, but I am sure it's for the best. Not least because to some extent, especially when you're relatively new to the sport, speed and endurance are mutually exclusive goals. Not just because of the risk of injury at pushing too far too soon, in other words, I think I'm more likely to be happy with my marathon performance next fall, I'll work mostly on stamina and hills over the winter and start doing speedwork again in the early spring and I should be quite a bit faster by this time next year. And I've got to get those triathlon skills going, the bike is going to hold me back otherwise!

Race report Sunday evening...


  1. Taper madness!

    And yes, listen to your body, factor in the conditions, and above all have fun!

    We'll look forward to your race report.

  2. I love hearing all the details of your training -- as I can't train myself right now, I get to experience it vicariously through you. Best of luck on Sunday.