A St. George Breakthrough

by Kent Little

Race report: St. George Marathon, Oct 1 2011.

A negative split. A breakthrough.  October 1st I ran my best marathon, and my best time yet, in St. George Utah.  I also fell deeper in love with running.  After four attempts at the marathon distance over the last four years, thousands of miles of training runs, hundreds of hours in the gym, and dozens of hours of study, I feel like I finally executed a marathon that matched the fitness level and mental preparation I brought to the day.

I’ve always enjoyed the marathon training experience—I suppose all repeat marathoners do. And I feel like I’ve gone into each of my prior marathons pretty well physically prepared for the challenge. I’ve had outstanding coaches. And as any amateur will tell you, truly, just finishing the act of propelling yourself forward non-stop for 26.2 miles is a big victory.  But while I have celebrated each of my three previous races of this distance, a few hours after the race, I found myself creating a mental checklist of what I could have done better. The list this time is pretty short, and it’s a handful of new mistakes, not the same errors (too much excitement, starting too fast, etc.). Why did things go better this time? As I think back on the race and the days and weeks leading up to it, and try and zero in on the reasons I had a successful performance, several themes emerge:

1.     Having a firm plan

When I set down for lunch the week of the marathon with my main coach this summer Mark Enstone, I expected help with a race plan and some last minute tips, but I came away more than that. Mark helped me create a detailed set of instructions and agreements that ultimately made me feel at ease, and gave me a very clear script to follow. By the time I left for St. George, to the point of finishing the race, I had a set schedule and solid race plan.

I had been planning on waking up at 5:00AM on the day of my flight to St. George and running my scheduled 3-miler, but Mark convinced me to consider Thursday a travel day and skip my normal Thursday run. Instead I would fly, get settled in the hotel and rest, and then run my 20-minute day-before-race, shakeout run on Friday, the day before the marathon (St. George is run on a Saturday). He also suggested I run my 10 minutes “out and back” from the finish line, giving me a good sense of the feel of the last mile and a half of the course, and an opportunity to visualize a successful finish.

I finished my early Friday shakeout run feeling great. I was also able to practice positive visualization, and imagine myself feeling strong at landmarks I knew I would pass at the end of the marathon the next day. These tips wound up paying huge dividends.

Mark also shared with me his planned splits from the back of his bib from his previous running of St. George, and we discussed me taking a similar approach to split planning. In the past, I have always worn a marathon pace wristband showing 26 split times based on “even” mile splits. Mark’s approach was instead to work against five split times at miles 5, 10, 15, 20, and of course, 26.2. This turned out to be a great approach for me, and one I’ll employ again.

As many have pointed out, when we practice marathon goal pace (MGP) on long runs and tempo runs, we typically track mile splits and try as much as possible to stay on MGP over each mile. On race day however, your MGP typically emerges as an average over several miles, slightly sharpening in some segments, and slightly slowing in others. Taking the approach of checking my splits over five miles gave me the freedom to not fret about being slightly over or under mile times, and that freedom lead to a reduction in stress.

Instead of focusing in on a pace band every mile I could focus on my breathing, my stride, my body position and the feel of the road for longer periods. In the second half of the race, after I had well established a workable pace that was yielding good 5 mile splits, I could relax even further. This played a huge role in my success.

Mark also convinced me to build a negative split into my target times, e.g., add in extra time beyond even MGP splits into my first three splits, helping to position myself for a strong finish.

After meeting with Mark, I built the following table in Word, printed three copies, and had them laminated. I gave one copy to Mark (giving myself a bit of extra accountability with a coach whom I was anxious to represent).  Then on race day, I taped one copy to the underside of my race bib, and I carried the third copy in my pocket of my shorts.

St. George Pacing and Race Nutrition

Segment

Segment Pace

Gel

Mile 5

39:30

X

Mile 10

1:17

 

Mile 11

X

Mile 15

1:54

X

Mile 20

2:31:30

 

Mile 21

X

AV per mile 7:36 = 3:19.

Relax the face, I run with grace

Relax the shoulders, I run much bolder

By agreeing with my coach to a firm plan for splits (and gels, and hydration), and making the agreements part of the race plan I was committing not to leave these variables to chance. The race plan Mark created for me gave me peace of mind and a path to success.  I had a script. I just needed to calmly follow it.

2.     Running Within. 

Coach Amy Anderson suggested a book called Running Within on the Rogue message board early in the training cycle and I ordered a copy.  I read the book several times during training and applied its teachings to my training. I think it has played a major role in my performance improving. Primarily, the book teaches readers how to apply relaxation and positive visualization techniques into endurance training and racing. With the help of the book, I developed several mantras (see pace card) that I employed during my runs throughout the season.  I also used the book’s pre and post workout relaxation and visualization exercises throughout the season.

St. George is a point-to-point course. Runners are bussed to the starting line and arrive at least an hour before the race starts. There are a dozen bonfires setup and runners are given those odd space blankets for staying warm before the race. There is time to kill. After running through my pre-race bathroom breaks, bag check-in, food nibbling, and light stretching, there was still 30 minutes before start-time. After getting separated from two of the other runners from Rogue who were running trough their own mental drills, I put my blanket down on the ground, laid down on my back near a bon-fire, closed my eyes, and went through the relaxation and visualization exercises I practiced during training. I hadn’t planned on it, but it helped calm me. When it was time to enter the starting corral I was very relaxed and feeling in the zone, and literally smiling, confident in what I was about to do.

I have come to view marathon training as a training pyramid consisting of a big base level of miles and endurance building, a level of nutrition and hydration focus, a level or resistance/weight training and core-work, and a level of speed, intervals and track-work. I now think mental preparation and attitude (learning how to manufacture an environment of calm in the mind in a stressful situation) is a core component of the top of the pyramid as well.

3.     Taking what the course gives 

Mark also repeatedly encouraged me to “take what the course gives” and this became another mantra reverberating in my head throughout the race. St. George is a rather unique and relatively fast marathon course. It features a major hill climb called the “Veyo Hill” at mile 7 that’s almost a mile long. Veyo is followed by several smaller climbs in the middle miles. The course’s defining characteristic is a general net downhill drop from altitude.

The single two-lane road has several major twists and turns so running tangents can save a few strides. Likewise there are several places where you can see at least a quarter mile of road ahead and consider undulations and camber. Most notably, St. George is know for rewarding negative splits for those with a little left in the tank at mile 20 on – always a tricky proposition and a personal weakness for me. The fastest portion of the course is from miles 22-26.

At Mark’s encouragement, I drove the course on Friday. I almost didn’t. My thinking on Friday afternoon, post-lunch was “maybe I really don’t want to be reminded of how far I will be running MGP by spending an hour round-trip driving the route I will be running in less than 24 hours.”  “I think I’ll nap instead.” But I grabbed the room key and rental car keys and stuck with the plan. Driving the course turned out to be a smart move. Even though it was a warm day on Friday I was able to get out of the car at a few places and study the road and the hills. The Veyo hill? Yes, it was long, and yes it was somewhat intimidating, laid-out like a long snake climbing and coming-around the red hills, but it was not Ladera Norte grade and after a face-to-face introduction, my apprehension about the hill was reduced to a simple healthy level of respect.

I also discovered that more than just mile seven being a climb, the course actually steadily climbed from mile 7-10. By driving the course I also was able to really absorb that the second half and the last 10K were (as promised) where the course has gifts to give. All of this basically reinforced my commitment to my race plan. Friday night, my inner voice kept repeating: “Whatever you do, don’t start too fast, like you always do. Don’t screw this up.”

The other thing I figured out that was course-related that paid dividends during the race and saved me some steps was observing the lane choice of runners ahead of me when aid stations were due. I knew at what mile points to expect aid stations from studying the race map. I also quickly learned that most aid stations were on one side of the road (or the other) only. Many of theses stations would appear after a hard turn.  I figured out that some of the lead runners had run the race before and it was obvious they knew which side of the road the aid stations would be positioned. If I was rounding a long-turn that was about to come-up on an aid station I would watch runners ahead. If the majority moved into the right lane when the camber favored left lane running I followed, and the aid station would always appear on the side of migration. It may not sound like much, but I employed this several times and it worked every time and probably saved me a few seconds.

4. Garmin factor

I was late to make the leap into utilizing a GPS training watch for two reasons (1) a resistance to becoming a ‘slave to the numbers’ on easy runs, and (2) the cost. After three years of consistent marathon training I finally picked one up this summer. I used it in two ways in training: to track (1) pacing and (2) distance during longer runs.

While I maintained many of my tried and true training routes for my runs this summer, it was nice to start the watch and simply head out the door in any direction, knowing that if I needed to run 10 miles I could just keep an eye on the watch’s distance tracking information. It was also nice to be able to dial-into a specific pace on tempo runs. As any Garmin user will tell you, the ability to upload your runs, and paces, etc., into your computer wirelessly brings a whole new level of insight into your training too.

I never visualized actually using the Garmin in the race. I am believer in running by feel. I initially planned on wearing my normal chrono/traditional sports watch. But as Mark pointed out, “it’s just another input.” As long as I used it as an information source, and not a pacesetter, per-se, it might be a good thing.

It turned out to be a good thing that I used it, but not because it helped me push pace. Instead it helped me moderate pace and reinforced for me that my mile splits were falling into the right zone as I progressed down the course.

As I’ve noted, my weakness as a marathoner has always been running those first ten miles way—too—fast. This time, I did manage a nice slower paced first mile, but there were several instances during the first few miles where I would glance down at the watch (which was set to show my average currently engaged mile pace) and see a number way faster than it should be. I would make an instant correction. I would force myself to slow my stride down until I hit the proper pace.

Could I have hit my splits without the Garmin’s insight? Probably. But I may not have had the opportunity to figure it out until the mile marker signs (which were every two miles), or the next five-mile split, and that might have been too late.

Conversely, when I was in the toughest part of the race towards the end, and I could glance down and see a number faster than my predicted pace, it was damn encouraging and exciting. The Garmin turned out to be an important tool and it brought me some calm because I could settle into an easier effort pace in the earlier miles, propel a faster pace in the late miles, and know that I was actually where I was supposed to be.

5.     Staying in head-mantras

I have always deployed mantras when running; especially long runs. Sometimes my mantra is a random series of numbers, a quote, a street address or street name I pass, a lyric etc. The effect over time is sometimes just a boredom killer, and sometimes transformative, bordering on meditative. It’s a hard thing to explain. This season I found myself using two mantras frequently; one I copped from the Running Within book, and one I think I made-up, or dreamed: “relax the face, I run with grace.” And “relax the shoulders, I run much bolder.”

It seems so simple, but if you relax your face, you then relax your neck. Then you relax your shoulders and then maybe your core comes into better balance, and your stride improves the slightest fraction.

If you repeat a phrase like “relax the face, I run with grace” even if you are just mindlessly repeating the words while staring at the landscape, or the runner in front of you, guess what happens; your face relaxes, as does the rest of you, and you start running more gracefully. If you run with more grace, you are probably improving your mechanics, and saving energy. When I found myself bored or losing focus in the race, I deployed my mantras. By placing them on my pace card, I was reminded them every time I looked at my script.

6.     Digging Deep. The pissed off girl.

There comes a point in the marathon, usually in the last 10K, when it just sucks. I don’t care how trained and fit one is, or how well the race is going, if you are pushing the pace, and working, the opportunity to face down the wall comes and it is the most vexing part of the marathon; managing the finish in the face of pain, fading mental faculties, and a body that is pleading with you “to stop.”

I have faded in the end of marathons, and I have finished somewhat strong. This time, when the discomfort started to creep, I had simply invested too much into my race to do anything but stare back at the pain and basically invite it to leave. It still hurt. I still suffered, and the descending nature of the last 10K, damn sure helped, but I finished better. Part of the reason for my better finish is what happened at mile 25. It was a moment of my magic that I’ll never forget.

I had been pushing my pace hard from the point that the course started to descend into the town of St. George, at about mile 22.  At mile 24, there were a million voices of discontent rattling around my head and the voices that were saying “slow down,” “this really isn’t that important to you,” “you can live with a slower finish time” were starting to drown out the voices saying “pain is temporary,” “your goals are within sight,” “just run hard to that corner.”

As this was happening, coming out of a water stop, I noticed another runner, a very strong and fit looking young lady who looked to be in her late 20s, in front of me. I could tell by her stride and the look on her face that she (like me) was in pain and facing some inner demons. She was in the process of grabbing a piece of ice from the water cup she had in her hand (we had passed an aid station, but I have no idea where the ice came from. I don’t remember any ice being around and would have loved some).

As I started to gain ground on her my stride momentarily slowed. I thought “man, she looks strong; she looks like she has been pushing the pace, and she is fading” Her apparent willingness to fall off pace a bit, so close to the finish, which was probably under a mile at this point, was about to give me permission to do the same. But as I came up almost directly behind her, (and a screaming pack of girls scouts shouting encouragement her way) she threw the cup of ice down hard on the street, yelled something undecipherable like “aghrgrheshitno” and took off down the street on a tear. She had made a decision. In the same way she somehow almost helped feed my inner demons, and allowed me to fade, she decided to fight, and I did too. Within a block I had passed her, and within a few more moments I could hear the finish line and I was giving it all I had with under a quarter mile to go. I’ll never have a chance to thank her. I was too spent at the finish line to locate her and thank her as I intended when it happened, but I’ll never forget her.

7.     Coaching does matter and the Rogue experience as a source of strength.

As I laid locked up in cramps in the rich green grass of the little park in St. George park near the finish line recovery area sucking on the best Bomb Pop of my life, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the other runners in various states of joy, pain, anguish around me had the good fortune to train with the types of coaches and other runners Rogue has afforded me. I have had several amazing coaches help me over the last six years, from 5K basic training with Carolyn the summer when Rogue was just starting, to my first marathon season three years ago with Bobby Garcia, I have learned major lessons from each of the Rogue coaches I have worked with. I will always consider all of them mentors, and forever respect their feedback. Mark and Carolyn have invested way more of their time in me than is fair the last two summers, and they have done it with a smile, in the dark, at 5:00 in the morning, in pretty ridiculous dawn heat. And I won’t forget it. I’ve made many friends over the years at Rogue and I hope to make more in the future.

There is nothing special about me physically. I am not gifted with any innate athletic talent. I have learned to love running, I have learned how to train, and I have trained consistently, with positive spirit, and slowly improved my running. Bit by bit.  In the big scheme of the universe, covering the marathon distance is not a big deal. What was magical about my personal experience this time was the intersections it represented for me personally….training meeting planning….planning meeting execution….mental training meeting physical training.

Outside of some shorter distance races over the next few months, and the beacon of Boston 2013 on the horizon, I’m not really sure what’s next for my running. So much focus and work went into this race for me, that I’m happy to have an opportunity for some easy runs around the lake, and less focus on my training for a while. But I have already noticed, with only about a week of reflection, that now that I know how to execute on a sound marathon plan, there is already a little voice deep inside of me saying “yeah, your getting older, but you could probably do that faster.”

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “A St. George Breakthrough

  1. Great report, Kent. It has been such a privilege and a pleasure to observe your growth, both physically and mentally, over these past three years of training together at Rogue. Thank you for allowing me a front row seat to your transformation; it’s been inspiring. Yours truly, peter

  2. Outstanding report, Kent. Loved it! One of the many wonderful qualities about you that I so admire and respect is how humble you are. You don’t talk about what you do. You just go out quietly about your training and let the results of your efforts speak volumes for themselves. Talk about being a role model for us at Rogue.

  3. Kent! What a wonderful and thoughtful report! I loved reading your personal lessons and mental reminders and new understandings. And I particularly appreciate your eloquent expression of your love of running. Right there with ya’…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s