Once upon a time, I decided to train for a marathon for which I never signed up. I believe I was riding the high of finishing my first trail marathon, which temporarily fooled me into thinking I might actually be a marathon runner. Regardless of the motive, I decided to follow a legitimate training plan (i.e. free internet training plan) as a means of assessing whether to sign up for another. All was going swimmingly until one single event stopped my marathon training dead in its tracks: the 32km training run.
It seems, at least amongst most mass marketed marathon training plans, that the 32 km run is the big daddy of the training cycle. It is the longest of the training runs and the true pre-race test of your physical and mental chops. And I am here to tell you that it was the coup de grace of my marathon training.
Up until the 32km training run, I had been diligently following my training plan, including speed work and tempo runs (side note: any human who claims to love either is clearly not to be trusted). I methodically plotted out distances for speed intervals. I used a variety of beats per minute (BPM) apps to find music to help me hold my pace on tempo runs. I even made peace with hill repeats. I felt like anything was possible.
And so, the night before my 32km training run, I was feeling pretty damn confident and I woke up feeling equally optimistic on the morning of my run. All the conditions were in place for a perfect run:
- Good night’s sleep: check
- Properly fuelled: check
- Hydrated: check
- Excellent (okay, perfectly sufficient) running gear: check
- The most scenic running route you can imagine (Banff legacy trail): check
- Cool and calm weather conditions: check
You know that expression “even the best laid plans fail”? It was meant for moments like this. Despite all the crucial elements of a great run coinciding, my run was an utter failure. My legs felt heavy as lead the second I started. I couldn’t get my breathing rhythm right. My compression shorts were chaffing my stomach. Even more importantly, my head just wasn’t in the game.
Despite all urges to stop and retreat, in the end I put in what I consider to be a valiant effort. I ran a solid 26km (and by solid, I mean I mostly ran but included regular bouts of walking any time I let my mind contemplate the futility of it all). But at 26km, I threw in the towel and called it a day.
The only problem was I was 26km from home without a functioning cell phone. It was a simpler, pre-iPhone time and Blackberries were notorious for having moisture-sensitive batteries. As it turns out, sweat from 26km of running was enough to saturate its battery pack and render it useless.I will spare you the details of how I walked another 6 km cursing my Blackberry and seeking a pay phone from which I could call someone (using a CALLING CARD!!!) to beg for a pickup and ride home. Suffice it to say, this was the end of my marathon training.
To this day, I have little faith in the value of highly structured training plans. I ran my half marathon and the Mount Robson Marathon with no official training plan. I mean, I ran a lot before both, but I didn’t follow a program. And I’m reluctant to follow one for my ultra (as you’ve seen in TWIR #1 and TWIR #2).
You may be thinking that I’m crazy, and you’re absolutely entitled to that opinion. However, before you judge too harshly, I invite you to consider the following reasons why I believe I’m quite sane in refusing the ultra training plan:
- Training plans are forced compliance. When I “have to” do things, I start to lose interest or sometimes even develop a deep hatred for them. For instance, in university I blatantly refused to read books on my reading list only to turn around and voluntarily read them after the semester was over. Training plans make me hate running because they specify distances, frequency and “type” of run. Having to follow them breeds such resentment that I inevitably abandon not only the plan, but also any desire to run. Conversely, training without a plan feels roughly like this and I have no problem keeping to regular running habits.
- Training plans require a strong mental game. When the stakes are low (i.e. there’s no external dependencies or motivation), I lack the grit to dig deep and follow through. As it turns out, a lot of life’s activities don’t involve someone holding a (metaphorical) gun to your head. Marathon training is one such activity. No one cares if I finish a training run. In fact, most of the time even I don’t care. As a result, it’s easy to throw in the towel whenever the going gets tough (i.e. on a hill, after 5km, when I made wine my best friend the night before…the list is endless).
- There’s no adrenaline rush when you train. Granted, I’ve only participated in two formal races. However, in both I experienced the unmistakable adrenaline rush that pushes you way beyond what you thought possible. The only rushes that training runs offer are cheap thrills like walking the rest of the way home, or bailing in favour of a pint of ice cream.
- There’s no competition in training. On a training run, I can’t tell who is really faster or who has run farther. I am a master storyteller who weaves a complex tale wherein everyone who passes me has either just started running or is training for a shorter race distance that justifies a faster pace. I am always the lone hero of my story, diligently slowing my pace to compete in a noble ultra while those other fleet-footed fools remain content with their tiny 5km runs. These delusions die on race day. When you all start at the same time there is no way to rationalize the fact that another runner is so fast that he appears to you as nothing but a tiny dot on the horizon. I know this means just one thing: I am slow. This is all it takes to fire up my inner competitive streak.
- There’s no shaming mechanism in training. On a training run, there’s no sideline of fans who know exactly how poorly I’m doing and who mock me with their pity cheers. When you want to stop on a training run, no one even notices. No one is going to jump out of the bushes and tell me I’m a lazy failure. In a race, hordes of onlookers will know that I am giving up if I stop. They will have a deep sadness in their eyes as they witness my sorry lack of fitness and mental fortitude. To avoid this shame-inducing experience, I will dig deep and find the strength to carry on.
In my opinion, this is a strong body of evidence against formal training plans. I say run when you want and how you want, and haphazardly build your endurance. I say wait for race day. After all, only on race day can the supremely motivating trifecta of competition, adrenaline and shame take your modest training and elevate it to stunning glory.
Who’s with me?