Marathon Musings

It’s been exactly one week that I finished the 2017 Maratona di Roma, a race I had dreamed of running and finishing for a long time. This was actually my second attempt after having to drop out last year, due to a hospital stay.

The course for the MdR is advertised as beautiful (true!) and fast (probably true) – so I had high hopes for a PR. I’m not a fast runner and definitely not a fast marathoner. I have no ambitions to qualify for Boston or win any age divisions. But as I started training for the MdR I generally felt in good shape through a combination of Crossfit, daily biking and running. I was confident I could finally break 4:30.

Spoiler alert: I did not.

It didn’t start too badly though.

Training

For both the New York City Marathon and the Munich Marathon, I trained with the FIRST method. The plan is based on a recent 5k, 10k, half or full marathon time, then gives you target paces for a weekly interval, tempo and long run. You only run three times a week for 16 weeks, but every run is challenging. There is no easy running. However, it does allow you time for additional recovery or cross-training.

I started training for the MdR just before Christmas, just as I was going through a busy period at work. But even as it was exhausting to train three times a week, Crossfit, work too many hours, travel for business and still try to sleep enough, I enjoyed doing it.

 

Beautiful chilly Munich, seen on my long run today. There's something peaceful about these cold weather runs, when the air is crisp and everybody is bundled up. (It's peaceful up to the moment you make it to Schlosspark Nymphenburg during Casual Walk Hour – another story.) We did Half Murph at Crossfit the other day (800m run, 50 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 150 air squats and 800m run). I didn't finish in the timecap, but managed to crank out 122 squats with probably not the best form. Those are the ones that make you hurt the most two days later. Naturally, my run wasn't the most comfortable today. I had no issues meeting my target pace, but felt sluggish the entire 16 kilometers. While I realized that this was the last "short" long run till the marathon, I also realized that three weeks in, training for the #maratonadiroma is going really, really well. Let's hope it stays this way! #run #running #runner #instarunners #instarunner #runners #laufen #münchenläuft #munichrunning #läufer #training #marathon #marathontraining #mdr #munich #minga #089

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Forget everything I said about winter running. It's the worst! 🤣 I got all bundled up and went outside to run my 5×1000 intervals. On icy roads. I had a hard time hitting my 5:19 target, actually missing it for the first two k. I just couldn't get a good grip on the ground to help me move forward. It felt like an all out sprint, yet I was too slow. After the first interval, I nearly already gave up and considered turning this into an easy run. Or even heading home. Obviously in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't because I did manage to meet my goal for the majority of intervals after all. I had something similar happen at Crossfit yesterday, where I realized at some point early in the WOD that it was harder than I was comfortable with and mentally, I just gave in. It's time I also work on mental training, not just physical. Anyway, super glad this is done. 👍🏻 #run #running #runner #instarunner #laufen #läufer #munichrunning #münchenläuft #munich #minga #münchen #089 #mdr #maratonadiroma #irunrome #marathon #training #marathontraining #fit #fitness

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I even continued running outside as Munich was hit by true-winter-like temperatures of -17°C (1°F). I still ran outside at 6 AM. I ran and sprinted and tempo’ed on icy roads. And it went so well that I still kept hitting and beating my target paces. I was so fast. I was high on adrenaline. I felt like I was flying.

And in retrospect, I was goddamn stupid. This is probably where I went wrong. Just because you can run faster than your target pace, doesn’t mean you should. I learned the hard way that running faster and harder doesn’t necessarily mean better. Just because you can run your 16k tempo at 5:50 pace instead of 6:26 (as prescribed per training plan), doesn’t mean you should.

I do realize now that I made a very rookie mistake: I overtrained. Badly.

This is where the fun ends

I kept ignoring the little pains and aches for as long as possible. Until they became so unbearable that I had to stop runs and was unable to finish them as I limped home.

Knee update! So I went to see my doctor today who was basically not telling me to go look for another sport but running, but sorta totally was. He insisted that orthopedically I was not made for running due to my knock-knees (X-Beine) and because of my weird kneecap. Or at least I was not made for ambitious running with tempo runs and sprints and training for a PR than a mere finish. He suggested I reduce stress through training, run easy and see whether this works for me. Hm. Funny how I managed to train for two marathons in the past, both with ambitious training plans. Sure, I started having overuse injuries on both training cycles, but never this bad. The fact that he wouldn't even answer my question about long term therapy (like physical therapy, chiropractic or other manual therapy) made me question his expertise, to be frank. After two horrible experiences with the staff at this practice, this is the last time I've gone there. He gave me a cortisone shot, which – together with daily foam rolling, ibuprofen and ointments – makes me hopeful I can make it to the starting line and cross the finish line. Then I'm trying a new doctor as I heal. #knee #injury #injured #marathontraining #maratonadiroma #mdr #irunrome #hopefullyafterall

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I saw several doctors, went through mixed emotions. Hope, despair, hope, despair. Hope. The first doctor told me, I had an inflammation, gave me a cortisone shot and advised me to find another sport. The second doctor believed at first it was the meniscus, then sent me to the MRI where we found out I had a torn calf muscle and multiple stress fractures. Possibly in both legs. And possibly not just the shins.

(For the record, in the MRI picture above, you see a dark, round bone – my thigh bone – and a much lighter bone below it – my shinbone. They’re both supposed to be the same color. Dark. All the white stuff in my shinbone are the little tears of the stress fracture.)

I might have cried (a little) after the diagnosis. With the marathon only two weeks away, I was pretty devastated. I knew that a stress fracture takes more than a week to heal. 4 if you’re lucky. More like 6 – 8. Or more. I had already accepted that I would not be running this race. The second year in a row.

There were no words for my disappointment.

All the sacrifices. Time spent running that I could have spent with my friends and family instead. Or sleeping.  Toward the end of the training cycle, I was physically and mentally exhausted. The combined stress of hard training, work (including a lot of traveling for business), therapy, multiple doctors appointments, having to organize a household and trying to see friends – it all became too much. But above all, the disappointment about the fact that this had been my shot at a PR – my endurance was great. My heart, lungs, muscles. All so strong and powerful. Yet my bones would have none of it.

My orthopedist, a former professional tennis player, had plenty of empathy. I received great treatment. We talked about what could be done and what would be safe. After the diagnosis of stress fracture, I had said goodbye to the idea of a PR. My priority had shifted to making to from the starting line to the finish.

The prescribed me a bunch of painkillers and magnet therapy, where magnetic rays are stimulating your joints to heal. 30 minutes every day. I knew it wouldn’t be a magic fix, but maybe enough to get me through.

We agreed I’d attempt the marathon. Take a bunch of painkillers the night before and day of, run and see how I feel. Drop out if I had to. But at least try.

Hours of Hell

I flew to Rome on Friday, so that I’d have all of Saturday to make it to the expo to pick up my race package without any rush.

Marathon Expo! \o/ 🏃🏼 #run #running #mdr #maratonadiroma #irunrome

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I got really overwhelmed at the expo. Alone in a sea of people. All these people looking a lot fitter and faster than me. I also got really scared of what lay ahead of me and whether I’d reach my goal.

 

By the time the race finally came around, I actually felt surprisingly calm. I felt relieved. We were gonna do this, I was gonna see how far I’d come and then it would be over. My only job post-marathon would be to allow my body to heal.

Most of the race is a blur. I actually don’t remember much of it, except that I was in pain. Pain. So much pain. Pretty much from the first step I took. I didn’t expect the marathon to be pain-free. None of the marathons I have run has ever been pain-free. I had just hoped it wouldn’t be from the very start.

The first thing I noticed was the calf muscle. It felt so incredibly tight. Later throughout the race, I had to stop several times to try and stretch it out. I also noticed my shins straight away, but ironically not the area where I had received the magnet therapy treatment (that pain didn’t come until later), but further down. My ankle joint and midfoot also hurt.

It wasn’t that bad at first. I hurt, sure. A lot sooner than I had hoped for. But it took until Kilometer 8 until I actually started wishing for the finish line. (Yay, only 34 km to go!!) Usually, that sentiment is reserved for the last 8 kilometers. ;o)

The course leads past a lot of (historical) sites but I can remember hardly any. I was so focused on somehow getting through this pain, while listening to my body for a sign that now was too much and I needed to drop out. I can’t tell whether that sign never came or whether it did and I just chose to ignore it.

I remember running around Castel Sant’Angelo and around Piazza Cavour with Rammstein blasting from a speaker somewhere nearby. Nobody else but me apparently thought it to be funny that they were singing about masturbating just steps from the Vatican City. I also remember running along the Via della Conciliazone, facing St. Peter’s and thinking that this (KM 18) was as far as I wanted to get. Goal – check.

I also remember the disappointment I felt when the 5 hour pacers passed me and I realized there was no way I could keep up with them. I must have been so zoned out that I had missed the faster pacers passing me. Realizing that no, I would not finish in under 5 hours was devastating and gave me plenty to beat myself up over the next few kilometers. (I eventually snapped out of it and gave myself a stern look for directing so much anger at myself and my body. My body which was doing an amazing job holding it together when it really ought not. When I was really asking way too much of it. Old thinking habits die hard.)

I remember the relief of passing the half marathon mark and realizing that I was now closer to the finish line than the starting line. Nonetheless, I must have looked miserable. I remember being asked by some medical staff at KM 30 whether I needed to drop out. Nope, only 12 to go. The last few seemed to take forever. I had to take several walk breaks, stop by the medics to get my knee and calf iced, stretch out what I could and limp on. Also around KM 30, my thighs started hurting – good old lactate acid – and my hip flexors and hamstrings tighten up. I was almost glad for some good old muscle pain.

It had started pouring the minute the gun went off and continued raining for possibly 1.5 – 2 hours, lightning and thunder included. At some point it had stopped, but during the last hour of my race it started again. Not only did this make the course more difficult (cobblestones become so slippery and because I didn’t trust my legs to be able to balance out if I stumbled, I was super cautious), but it also was freezing cold.

I can’t remember much between crossing the finish line and making it back to the hotel. I received the medal, cried (can’t remember whether that was out of happiness and pride, or relief because it was finally over), received a thermo blanket and then somehow stumbled to the medical aid tent. I received a nice, free massage, cried some more, got some food and hot tea, then stumbled back to the hotel like a zombie.

It took my last efforts to force a smile for my finishing photo. But look, I made it. Running the Maratona di Roma has to be one of the toughest things I have ever done. Let me tell you, my friends, running a marathon on what actually felt like multiple stress fractures and a torn muscle is tough. Running on cobblestone streets during almost constant downpour (we're talking thunder and lightning here!) is tough. The already uneven roads become slippery nightmares. Running and pushing through when you start hurting at kilometer 8 instead of when there are only 8 left, that's tough. At around km 30, my thighs started hurting – good old lactate – and my hip flexor tightened up badly. I was almost glad for the distraction I felt from the other pain. But apparently I looked so miserable that one of the staff members asked if I needed to leave the race. (There was a LOT of medical staff throughout the course. Very well organized!) But none the less, I prevailed. I finished. I earned that medal. 🥇My time is not even a disappointment – even though it's pretty much a full hour more than what I had originally trained for. Instead, it's making me respect slow runners who finish races a hell lot more. You have no time idea how painful running for 5, 6, 7 or more hours is until you've done it. After the race, I nearly passed out. It's somewhat blurry what happened but I think I found the medical tent, where I received a free massage. The walk back to the hotel then seemed to take forever. But here I am now. Tired. In pain. But happy. I so can't wait for my nap now! Congratulations to all the finishers of the 23rs Maratona di Roma!! 💪🏻 #garmin #instarun #instarunners #instarunner #run #runner #running #runners #maratona #marathon #maratonadiroma #mdr #IRunRome #iRANrome #proud #pained #läufer #laufen #rome #roma #italy #italia #vacation

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So what now?

I’ve thought a lot about this race and where I’ve gone wrong. I overtrained. Badly. I ran faster than I needed to out of wrong ego. I increased the intensity too much too fast. I have not done any tempo work in between training cycles and then jumped into a weekly interval and tempo session.

I failed to listen to my body and even as it was giving me very clear signs that I’d overdone it, I put my mule face on and stubborned it out. (If I do have one characteristic, it’s being stubborn as a mule.) Was that a mistake? Possibly. Would I do the same next time? Probably.

Right now my body needs and deserves to heal. I currently have no desire whatsoever to train ambitiously. I like the idea of going for a run for the sake of being outside, but that’s not smart right now. My bones and joints need time.

I always said that I was going to get my PR in Rome and then I’d be done with running marathons. This was my third and hence more than most people do.  I still like the idea of running a PR. I like the idea of running another marathon. I don’t know whether that’s the mule in me talking, the hidden disappointment of how this training cycle went or the fact that I currently don’t find any enjoyment at all in my alternative – Crossfit.

Thankfully, nothing needs to be decided now as my #1 priority is clear: rest.

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