Not unlike most marathoners, maybe the single biggest challenge I face during training is figuring out a way to be in peak condition standing at the starting line on marathon day. It shouldn't be that hard, right? I mean, isn't marathon training simply a systematic cycle where you build your mileage pragmatically and methodically, bottling it up for 16 weeks, and then pop the cork for the perfect race day experience? Well maybe that's the way it works for some runners, but after 28 marathons and one ultra, I can honestly say it rarely happens for me.
Sure, I've been close a few times. I've been in great shape for a few races when the gun went off, and subsequently ran close to my best. But much more the norm is the scenario of me standing in the starting corral, naturally a bit anxious, but moreover lamenting how just two or three weeks prior I felt much more primed for the 26.2 now staring me in my carb-loaded face. And more than anything wondering why, after several weeks of diligent and committed training, I now felt jelly legged, soft-gutted, and unsure if I could run even three miles at my scheduled marathon pace.
Part of the issue is the taper. We absolutely lose fitness during the taper. Yes, I'm well aware that I'll receive several public and privately emailed dissenting comments informing me of my ignorance on the topic. But it's a fact. Don't believe me ... well, my favorite running website, RunnersConnect.net, put it this way ...
"Initial declines in fitness occur rapidly: There are measurable declines in fitness, and enzyme levels associated with performance drop by half in under two weeks."
This excerpt is actually from an article (here) that experimented with athletes who took complete layoffs for extended periods from their sports. Of course I understand that we are not completely sedentary during the tapering process. But I just don't think there's any way can we drop from comfortably running 75-80 miles per week (in my case), to around 35-40 for the two weeks before the race and not "taper" our fitness level to some degree as well. I just don't think it's physiologically possible.
But even though I firmly believe that we erode our fitness level, no matter how slightly, during the taper process ... I'm a huge believer in it. There's just too much scientific support NOT to believe in it. Among others, we rebuild damaged muscle fibers and top of glycogen stores during the cutback in training. In my own little, "don't believe anything and try everything for yourself" experiments, I've actually completed marathons after running a long run of 20 miles the weekend before the race. The result was that I felt really sharp the first half of the marathon, but then fatigued severely during the second half. We absolutely need the rest and recovery prior to the marathon distance.
But also, I think part of my problem has been the length of training. More than once I've felt at my "fittest" about five weeks before the race. Not good. And accordingly 14-16 week training periods seem to be a little too long. This is partly because I keep a base of about 50 weekly miles all year round, and don't need as much "base-building" mode as some runners. I've found that a good ten week cycle will typically prime me for a strong race. And when I ran nine marathons in 2011, I was using an eight week process. So it really just depends on my conditioning benchmark at the time.
So with about fifteen days until the Phoenix Marathon, I sit here, once again thinking about how great I feel, and desperately hoping I feel somewhere close to this way on race morning. I'll take the proper measures, and workout the prescribed "taper way" over the next two weeks. And maybe, just maybe ... this time around I'll be fitter and faster than ever as we run down the hill in the desert mountains. I guess we'll find out before long!
... Be Great Today!