Over the last couple of months training my gallant, gaggle of galloping gals I have been posed numerous queries about running and training, but none so tricky as this one to explain: How do you train the brain to own the last 10k of the marathon without ever having run that far or run that race distance before?
There are all sorts of answers to this question that I am sure you can find on every coaching website or training book, and to some extent they are all correct. But since this is my little plot of lovely on the interweb, I shall only speak for myself and what I have come to understand and believe.
From this coach’s perspective there are a few ways to train and prep your brain for that ominous final 10k without ever having run the full 26.2 miles before. Honestly, a lot of it seems like common sense, but it still seems to elude people. Anyway, the most effective way, and best answer I have to this question, is to do a shorter distance – say a 21 to 23-miler – and do a focused workout over that distance. This past weekend I took three of my current runners out for a nice 21-mile stroll over the George Washington Bridge and through Pallisades Park with a focus on hill work.
For one in particular, Jo (aka LIrunner9), I broke her run into three parts, which ultimately resulted in a hill focused progression run, which is how we are approaching her ‘A’ race. Her focus through the first half of her run was to temper her pace, taking it easy right up to the 9.5-mile marker, which is set off by a nice 1-mile continuous climb. Tasty!! From that long climb through the back half of the run, Jo did a hill digger – pushing every incline – for the rest of the distance and then a hard push over the last 2-miles to test her finishing kick. Seriously, this is one of my favorite runs I do and it always kicks my ass and I always go back for seconds!
Anyway, for the ‘why.’ We started out at little slower pace to get the legs loose and to get comfortable with some unknown terrain, since she had never been through this section of the Park before. Also, this was a GROUP run and I didn’t want to edit out the social aspect at all, because the running community is amazing and it is fantastic to know that everyone out there is really pulling for one another to succeed. Furthermore, for the NYC marathon, one of the great tools that can be used to achieve your goal is to fall into one of the many pace groups that will pepper the race route and use them to help motivate and keep your rhythm nice and steady, which can often times be hard to do when you go out solo and get swept up in the adrenaline surge of marathon day.
Getting back to the run, the big hill climb was the launching point for digger portion of this run for a few reasons: 1. It is unlike anything that Jo will encounter in her race in terms of length, pitch, and difficulty. 2. It was dead in the middle of a very hilly course, which is lighter on the way out than on the way back, so burning the legs heading into the turn around ensured that the back half would be more work than coming out. Taking into account that approach, you can much closer simulate the full marathon distance without actually having to run it. 3. By pushing the 1-mile climb and forcing the issue you prompt the most difficult aspect of this run and the last 10k of the marathon, the mental side. At this point that lil' voice starts with the questions in the runner’s head: How am I going to finish this? What the hell am I thinking doing this crap? Where the hell is the top of this thing?! How am I going to be able to stick to my plan after I crest this friggin’ hill?!
By making the back half of the run a digger, every hill, every minute incline tests the runner’s conditioning and resolve to fight through the pain, fatigue and self-defeating psychological torture. It is supremely important for the runner to KNOW that this moment is exactly what they have been training for and that there is no stopping them. This is where you tell yourself, “My mind doesn’t work for my body, my body works for my mind. Now move!!!” The mind is an amazing thing and if you can truly wrap it around that very simple idea, and I mean REALLY believe it, you will begin to see just how far and how much you can push your body.
The last two miles of this run is where you take the aforementioned mentality and really put it into action testing your conditioning as you kick to the finish. Those last miles are the culmination of everything that you have done, the hill repeats, the track work, speed drills, strength exercises, and especially your core work. I’ve had Jo, as well as all of my other runners, on a strictly regimented core routine that is done after every workout, to prepare them just for this moment. When you get to this point in this run or the marathon, your legs are tapped, or at least should start to really feel that way, and you start to depend more and more on your core to help pull your knees up and forward, keep your legs turning over, and driving yourself towards the tape. For Jo’s run, the last 2 miles were pretty flat and consistent and after all of those hills it was the first opportunity she had to really open her stride and legs back up and she really pushed through them.
So, what are the last 10k of the marathon like? It is pain. It is sweat. It is tears. You’ve hit the wall, busted through it and are looking for anything and everything within yourself and the crowds along the streets to help push you through to the finish line. It is the ultimate test of your mental toughness. The point where that lil' voice in your head that you have trusted to this point now begins to cast doubt over the tone of your mantras. You wince. You really start to question everything that you are doing in terms of your pace and planning. Your watch and the course clock hang heavy on you as you constantly check your time, doing the math as quickly as your strained brain can handle. And you know what, you WILL get through it.
Running that last 10k is as much about your training as it is about who you are as a person. When you hear that lil’ voice in your head telling you that there is nothing left, that this is too much, do you listen? Or, do you tell yourself the most basic mantra I know, which got me through my first marathon, “You’ve worked too hard for this. There is NO stopping until it is done!” I have the utmost respect for anyone, and I do mean anyone, that has the stones to go out and train and run a marathon, whether it’s a three-hour Boston qualifier or a six-hour run-walker. The mental and physical toughness that this event tests you with from the starting gun to the moment they place that metal around your neck is phenomenal!
So, to answer the question with a question: When you get to that last 10k and that lil’ voice starts to chime in, what will your response be?