Our Garmin’s chirped in sync and he muttered, “7:36 for that one.” I impulsively exclaimed, “Too fast, that’s too fast. I can’t sustain that pace.” “Yes you can. You are. Your breath is even, your arms are loose. YES YOU CAN.” I glanced down at my HR to reveal a 151. It’s exactly where I wanted and planned for it to be and yet the thought of running 7:36s or faster for the remaining 7 miles just seemed terrifying. Chris noted, “Focus on your breathing. It’s calm and it’s even. You got this.”
Do I? I do. But do I?? Can I run the remaining 13 miles at a 7:36 or faster? I can, at least I think I can. He’s right. My breath is even. The effort is entirely manageable. The heart rate is exactly where it needs to be and I feel completely in control of my body. Shit- the man is right!! I’m going to negative split a 20 mile race!
For the past five months I have been following a customized training plan leading up to the 2017 Boston Marathon. I’ve been building my mileage from 40 miles a week up to 69.6 miles last week (and yes it physically pains me that I am missing that final .4). I’ve been completing tempo runs, hill workouts and track workouts that slowly but surely build on their difficulty to get me faster and fitter with each successive step. I’ve spent A LOT of time leaning into the pain, learning how to push HARDER and FASTER to uncover my fitness from my last marathon training cycle (Boston 2016). I’ve focused on hitting paces during tempos- aiming for 20 minutes at 7 min pace or faster! Hitting mile splits at 6:40 or better. Doing SO MANY hill bounding reps that my legs just want to fall off, but no- maybe I’ll just vom instead. All of these workouts and the miles have pushed my fitness ceiling higher and higher. In the past few weeks I’ve even lost a few pounds- not for lack of trying to eat everything in sight- I swear. The miles are adding up and the fitness is there; yes, I’m feeling Boston ready!!!
However, I’m leaving something major out of this pretty picture that is my training plan- something critical that I feel is beginning to make all the difference in my running and racing: I’ve started to train with an eclectic running philosophy that incorporates heart rate based training, pacing expectations for specific workouts and places a strong emphasis on biofeedback. Before you simultaneously yawn and close your browser give me a chance to explain what on Earth I’m rambling about! Heart rate based philosophy gives runners specific effort zones within which all of their runs should fall. Following your custom HR zones (b/c they are unique to the individual) will absolutely improve your fitness. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I’ve started a training cycle where I go out for a zone 1/conversationally paced run and my pace is 8:50 avg and then by the end of the training cycle I complete a zone 1 run with an average pace of 8:05. No joke, this training approach works.
My zones are as follows:
Zone R/ gentle recovery days: Below 131
Zone 1/ conversational pace: 136-148 – 141 is the middle
Zone 2/ tempo: 149-160
Zone 3/ speedwork/ HARD tempo runs: 161 +
I have used these HR zones to structure my runs for the past 3 years and WHAT a difference it has made. But I believe that the human body is too complex to have such stiff numbers attached to it all the time. HR zones provide an excellent guide for an athlete, but are they the be all and end all? I don’t think so. Enter pace goals on training runs. Once I established a solid base of miles and completed about 2-3 months of tempo runs to heart rate my coach Beth started integrating goal paces for my tempo runs. It didn’t matter if my HR went into zone 3- Once she was confident that I was durable and my body could handle the intensity of harder workouts my mission was to squeeze out every last drop of energy during my tempo runs and long runs. She had me reaching for 15 mile runs with the final 3 miles at a 7:10 pace or 2×20 min tempos with 7 min pace or faster. These paces terrified me, and yet time after time I was able to deliver on the day.
But something was still missing and I think – maybe- this is where Beth and I started to part ways. While Beth wanted my 2 recovery runs of the week to have an average HR of 125 (which translates into about a 10:15 pace) week after week my legs just naturally went to a 9:30-9:45 pace. This felt EASY to me. It was where my body naturally wanted to go when I told it to go trot along, smell the flowers and just relax. Mind you, this pace was still within my ZR heart rate zone but closer to the top at 131. Beth and I went back and forth on this often. She told me to slow down and I told her that it took more mental energy to slow down than it did to just run how my body wanted to run. Who was right? Who was wrong? I honestly don’t know. I’m not saying that running “my way” is better or right– (I mean, Beth has won and placed at her fare share of Ironman competitions! She’s a beast on the road and a hell of an amazing coach!!) but I am saying that running to feel seems to work for me both mentally and physically.
My body always tells me how it feels. This training cycle I started to actually listen.
And that brings me to my third point: biofeedback. This cycle I have focused on becoming attuned with my body. I spend my runs listening to the sound of my breath (how deep/shallow? how long? How labored?), focusing on the tightness or soft nature of my chest/lungs and even honing in on the difference between true pain and annoying fatigue during long runs. I give my body about 2 miles (15-20 min) of nearly every run to simply wake up with ZERO pace expectations. What will be, will be. Then I focus on finding that rhythm, that groove, that natural turnover in my legs. I let it naturally unfold within my body. Ahhhhhh! The moment my legs turnover like a ferris wheel at the height of it’s ride, my eyes wide with excitement and yet my breath is calm and steady- THAT MOMENT RIGHT THERE is my happy place!! It’s the middle of my Zone 1. My “I’m not holding back, but I’m not pushing forward.” It’s my forever pace.
I haven’t spent months searching for my forever pace, rather my forever feeling. Since my forever pace is fluid and dependent on my level of fitness, I have spent time learning HOW MY BODY FEELS when I’m running comfortably.
Heart rate. Pace. Biofeedback.
Taken together I used all three to JUST PLAIN NAIL the Eastern States 20 Miler last weekend. I say this with such fervor because I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was done: I negative split a 20 mile run. I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt IN CONTROL. I’m still in a bit of shock because honestly- it felt like a once in a lifetime run that came together!!
At the race start I was your typical female mess. Honestly- I wasn’t even worried about the race. I was being a
royal B anxious hot mess delicate flower of a woman and needed some reassurance from my guy. And deliver he did, cause he always does <3. Replacing my furrowed brow with giggles is his specialty and by the start of the race I was feeling more focused and ready to run.
My plan was to run the first 10 miles in my zone 1 (at a conversational pace), 7 miles in zone 2 (my tempo pace, 2-3 words at a time) and the final 3 miles in zone 3 (DEFcon 3, vom pace, give it all you got until you cross that finish line, NO talking ONLY thumbs up to others).
My plan was awesome (obviously). It was perfect for me and my level of fitness and better yet I felt confident that I would be able to execute. It was perfect UNTIL lots of other runners started passing me in the first two miles. Did I say a lot of runners? Yea, I mean HUNDREDS of other runners passed me and I hated it. I 100% absolutely hated being passed by every singly runner out there. Each time I was passed I swallowed by pride, looked at my watch (which displayed HEART RATE, not pace) and reminded myself that I needed to run MY race.
Run your own race. Stay comfortable. HR needs to be at 140-142. Focus. Just find a groov
As each mile ticked by Chris’ watch would ding and he read off the mile split. 8:03…. 7:59….7:56…
By mile 9 the pace descended to a 7:47 with a corresponding average HR of 146. For the next 8 to 10 minutes shit got REALLLLLLY close to the fan. It didn’t touch it. I swear to you that there was no splatter involved, but damn close it got! My hamstring in my right leg cramped up BAD. I seriously considered stopping to stretch it just to alleviate the tension. Naturally I started giving my body my version of a mid race pep talk, “Fuck you!! Fuck you!!” (Note: don’t scream F you when you’re running a 20 mile race with your BF.) Chris once again reassured me, “Your pace hasn’t changed. You’re still running in the 7:40’s. Your turnover is balanced and even.” Isn’t he so dreamy? (but seriously, I love when he talks running to me). The man was right again- doh! I didn’t know what was going on in my body but I refused for it to mess up this race. I got quiet, subtly altered my gait to lean forward to possibly slightly alleviate the tension and went into the recesses of my mind to state, “Left foot, right foot, repeat.” My thoughts were focused on #1 not panicking and #2 refinding my rhythm on the road. By mile 10 my body started to cooperate- crisis averted.
By mile 12 the pace descended to 7:36 with a corresponding average HR of 151. I panicked and errupted, “Too fast, that’s too fast. I can’t sustain that pace.” Right by my side, Chris reassured me,”Yes you can. You are. Your breath is even, your arms are loose. This isn’t hard for you. YES YOU CAN.” The man was right. In my mind the pace was unsustainable, but my body, my HR and even my BF were telling me a different story. I pushed onwards.
At mile 15 Chris went on his way to finish up the remaining 5 miles at his own marathon pace. Alone. I was left alone without any outside reassurance and yet by this time I didn’t need any. I had this. I ate my 3rd and final gu and leaned into the pain. All my thoughts were focused on getting to mile 17. Get to 17. Just get to 17. Why? Because at mile 17 I only had a 5k left. Just 20 minutes. Twelve laps around the track. Shorter than my easiest recovery run up Sea Street to Hough’s Neck where you can see the pretty view of the Boston skyline in the distance. Just a 5k left baby!! I can run a 5k in my sleep. Giddy-up!!!
At mile 17 I gave it all I had left: 7:17, 7:19, 7:17 and a corresponding HR of 162, 163, 166. My breathe was labored. My arms were stiff and probably too high. I was counting down the minutes. I focused on getting through one more song on my iPod and then another 4 minute song and then another. But I did it- I negative split a 20 mile race and better yet- in the final 8 miles I passed what felt like hundreds of other runners!!
I finished with a final time of 2:34:46 on my watch and a 7:40 average pace per mile for the run.
As we all are, I’m a work in progress as a runner, but I have to say DAMN!! What a day!! The Eastern States 20 Miler was a win! Physically. Emotionally. Romantically (mostly because the man put up with me for 15 miles, 5 of which with a furrowed brow of anxiety) <3.
It’s been one year since I’ve completed a marathon (Boston 2016) but this time something feels different. I feel different. I’m ready to listen to what my body has been telling me all along: how to run both smart and hard. I’m still teasing out a game plan for Boston pacing but you can be sure it will incorporate the big three: HR, pacing and biofeedback into the mix. Sadly, I’ll be flying sans man meat for these splits. I’ll be starting in Wave 2, corral 8 as the bf chants SHAME in my general direction before he leaves to take off in Wave 1, corral 1. Then again, I guess I will be surrounded by about 40,000 of my other best friends.
GUYS, I’M FEELING BOSTON READY!!
LET’S DO THIS THING!!
LET’S RUN OURSELVES A MARATHON!!
Never stop running,
The Lone Runner