Shuffling toward the finish line

I appreciate all the virtual high-fives from everyone last weekend for completing my marathon goal. I made certain to post all the race photos that cast me in the best light. Now for thoughts on training for a marathon in just ten weeks. To be clear, I don’t recommend a ten week plan, but I have a few observations from my experience that you might find useful as part of a more traditional training approach.

*** On Dieting ***

For those of you consumed by thoughts of losing weight, I’ll share my experience. I gained 20 pounds in 2020 out of emotional stress, one too many glasses of Malbec each night, and my own cooking. A weekly Mr. Gattis Sampler pizza figured in there somewhere too. I didn’t intentionally begin a diet in January, but I changed my habits nonetheless.

I returned home in January to my wife’s cooking and stopped drinking. I lost 15 pounds in 3 months. I call this an unintentional diet because my wife doesn’t cook much meat, especially red meat, and I wasn’t looking to stop drinking but she wasn’t and she’s a team player. I was only running on weekends at that point. I maintained that routine throughout the summer with very light drinking, until August when my melancholy demanded progress. I did try to diet then but it didn’t work out.

I thought I needed to lose more than those 15 pounds to run a marathon, I was thinking another 20 to 25 pounds because I’ve run marathons well in the past at 175 pounds. Weight does matter in distance running if you want to run fast. What I learned in my ten weeks was that I could run comfortably at 193 pounds, which was my weight last Sunday, so it was okay that I only lost another 4 pounds.

My goal was to complete a marathon, not run fast. I can tell you that my experience was just as satisfying in this run as in all past marathons. By the way, after burning through 4000 calories in those four and a half hours, I weighed 189 when I got home.

*** Motivation ***

The catalyst that precipitated my focus was serving as crew chief to my son-in-law’s 100 Kilometer alpine trail ultra. It was too much for me to gather in the forest with all those elite, perfect, runners’ bodies.

It’s one thing to watch a game on TV or from the stands. It’s another to be on the field in the middle of the spectacle. I fantasize about competing in the Olympics on many of my runs and when I’m standing amidst Michelangelo’s running Davids, I believe I’m living my dream. When you sign up for these extreme events, they let you literally stand right next to these beautifully exposed runners’ bodies. I forget that I’m fat and I feel like I belong there.

I don’t mind saying this because my wife knows I married her for her dancer’s legs, and because she still dances, that I mostly love the women runners’ legs, shaved and with such smooth curves of power. And I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I covet some of the men’s forms too. I want that for myself.

My motivation sounds vain now that I’ve written it, but doesn’t something like running a marathon have to be? You show me an elite athlete and I’ll show you a narcissist. Non-runners think of marathoners as masochists but no, they’re just in love with their own bodies. I noticed last Sunday that many of the men have taken to shaving their legs too.

*** Training ***

I’d been running weekends so I wasn’t starting from scratch. After committing to my plan though, I was disillusioned because I had to mostly train indoors on the elliptical the first two weeks, due to extremely poor air quality from the forest fires. Ironically, that probably worked in my favor. It kept me from exceeding my limits at the start. I did push myself hard, going for upwards of two hours on the elliptical. But there is zero impact on those machines and my body wasn’t nearly as sore or exhausted and I was able to easily recover for the next day. I think the elliptical helped to mitigate the potential negative impact of training too hard, too fast. Take what you want from that but in my experience, it’s not unusual to over exert yourself and then lose days for recovery time.

And, because I was concerned the elliptical wasn’t enough, I spent cycles on calisthenics and a little bit of weight lifting. I’m always too tired to do that after a run but had the energy training indoors and developed a good routine with squats, leg raises and planks. I lost absolutely zero weight the first four weeks, but people were complimenting me on my apparent weight loss. Best I can tell is that a daily two-minute plank toned up my abdomen enough that I gained two notches on my belt. I’d never done planks with any regularity before and had no idea at how effective they were. It did take me four weeks to go from one to two minutes. The lesson there, beyond the specific value of planks, is the benefit of strength training.

When I finally got outdoors, the new body tone helped considerably with my running, but I still had to learn how to run slow. I would often run Saturdays on an extremely hilly course and could run upwards of 8 miles. Then I’d try running on a flat course Sunday and find myself walking after a single mile. I figured I wasn’t able to recover properly because of my age.

Wearing a watch with a heart rate monitor helped me to solve the mystery. The hills forced me to run slow and I was running way too fast on the flat course. I had to learn how to run slow. It’s harder than you’d think. I found the heart rate monitor to be a better tool than monitoring my pace. Maybe this is only interesting to me, but every time I refocus efforts on running, it’s like I have to relearn how to run. Don’t assume you know what you’re doing.

*** The Grandpa Runner ***

Even after I learned to run slow, some days my heart would race, forcing me to walk. Best I can tell, I think it was the temperature from really hot days. I freaked out enough though to buy a more accurate heart rate monitor – the type with a chest strap and technically an ECG or electrocardiograph. I don’t mind admitting that I was concerned about having a heart attack in my marathon. Something about getting older. I became a grandfather a few weeks earlier.

My concerns were partly warranted because I have a condition called tachycardia Arrhythmia where my heart just randomly switches from the primary node to a secondary node to generate my heart beat. And that second node beats a ton faster than the first. I initially suspected that might be what was behind my heart occasionally racing from 135 bpm to 170 bpm on my runs.

When a cardiologist explained this to me at 25, he said the symptoms might disappear in my 50s. I think he was right because I’ve had a couple of ECGs since then and I know the condition has disappeared for my normal resting heart rate. But at 25 the symptoms went away at a slightly elevated heart rate and reappeared again at a yet higher heart rate, as diagnosed on a treadmill. I wondered if it wasn’t still happening now while running.

I have more to study yet on my heart rate monitor to know that I’m reading it correctly. Actually, I did read up on it and I know I’ll have to share the file with my doctor to understand it properly. An ECG chart is different from what I’m displaying above and it’s complicated. But rising body heat or running over four hours will start to raise my heart rate to where slowing down my pace isn’t good enough and I have to walk for a minute or so to recover. That’s fine. The above chart shows my heart rate held really steady throughout the marathon, under 140 bpm, but then started to shoot up past 170 in the last six miles, even though I wasn’t accelerating my pace. My max heart rate is defined as 160.

My point in sharing the heart rate details with you is partly because I think it’s some cool running tech, but also to stress that I’m not cavalier about my health. I get the sense sometimes that people think I train and run too hard and am not careful enough considering my age. I took measures to monitor my heart rate and shamelessly walked when I saw it was too high. I felt strong enough to continue running but I wasn’t so vain as to risk my health. It probably only added five minutes to my overall time and didn’t take away from my sense of accomplishment. And I know what I don’t know, so I’ll be sharing my data with a doctor for expert analysis. I’m 59. I hope to be 60 some day and to still be running marathons.