Debriefing Vancouver 2023, what I have learned, and summer training plans

I had a full week in Vancouver after the marathon before heading home and made a point to enjoy the vacation. While in town I probably didn’t set in front of a laptop for more than an hour at a time before flying back to Vegas. Plus, this week at work was somewhat busy, as I not only had to catch up after a week away but we also had a plan to execute this week and that always requires considerable work. So there wasn’t much time to debrief or really write out how I felt about the new training process and how I handled the marathon, before now.

Having just switched my entire training approach two months before, I was as curious as anything how my body would handle the marathon. I threw out any sense of racing or pace in advance, and just set out running easy with the plan to enjoy the scenery and adjust as needed. Thankfully, my sleep had been better than past years and I was better rested for this marathon than any of the prior ones.

The weather was overcast after (literally) weeks of consistent rain, around 50°F (10°C), and it was expected to stay overcast at least through early afternoon. I was carrying 3 Xact fruit bars, and a packet of Maurten 320, which I successfully experimented with days before, that I would dose throughout the run to maintain glycogen and avoid bonking (I would just pour a bit of the 320 in my mouth before drinking water at fluid stations).

I ran continuously and easy except for walking through fluid stations to start. I decided to aim for a steady easy cadence, 160+ steps per minute (my stronger easy runs average about 165), as this focused me on turnover rather than overstriding. I always plan to take fluid at every station in a marathon, and no exception here.

This worked fine, but as we scaled Camosun hill the sun unexpectedly came out and it actually got somewhat warmer than it had been all week, let alone warmer than expected.

I held firm into the UBC campus, but suddenly I started seeing medics attending to runners on the side of the road. I was starting to struggle in the now-warm sun, and after turning onto Marine Drive 10 miles in my cadence slowed below 160 and it became difficult to even hold the 150ish I was doing. Many others had slowed to a walk well before this, and finally about 11 miles in I gave in and slowed to a walk myself.

I hadn’t bonked. But trying to maintain that level of continuous effort wasn’t going to work if it was going to stay warm. Overheating would have sunk me. I looked up to gauge the cloud cover, and with a clear sky on one side of the sun I was concerned that the weather would defy forecast and remain quite sunny, earlier than expected. I wanted to enjoy the run, and that wasn’t going to happen if I miserably insisted on grinding it out for the sake of pride a la 2019.

After a few minutes of walking, I decided going forward to Galloway-run it, much like I had done in many of my long workouts, run 1 minute and walk 1 minute. I started running and it certainly felt better, able to comfortable run a bit more brisk while also walking somewhat brisk. This would work.

If I saw an aid station ahead and my running minute was about to expire, I’d just run a little longer until at the station, take my time with the fluid and then resume running on the minute once ready. And for a sake of a sliver of pride, I would do the same if a kilometer marker or timepoint or cameraman was ahead, extending the run until past them and then walking.

Suddenly, before the turn downhill out of UBC, the sky got dark again as clouds rolled back under the sun. Feeling good now, I started a run segment turning down the hill and decided to just continuously run/use the downhill until at the bottom, then slow to a walk where appropriate and resume the run/walk intervals. The run and the pace downhill were easy, certainly solid, and though it wasn’t the goal I actually blew quite past a few people who continued run/walking the downhill.

One challenge in any big marathon is that using a toilet at the early stations is a futile exercise as lines form at the ones near every early aid station. My plan with Vancouver is, while observing the situation at each station, to presume that no open toilet will be available in the first 14 miles, ignore the early ones, and to expect to use one sometime during the Point Grey Kitsilano stretch in miles 13-18.

To my surprise, an offset group of toilets appeared wide open shortly after the 21K halfway point. I actually asked the volunteers if we were allowed to use them I was so surprised. They said yes and I hurried over to leak, a welcome break.

After I got back out and resumed run/walking, we were ordered to the left side of the road: An AMBULANCE with lights on was rolling through. So the medic situation apparently got pretty bad for at least one person, as the sun and the overheating knocked more people down before the clouds returned. On the flip side, this validated my decision to switch to a run/walk. I might have taken a turn for the worse had I not.

I ground out the minute intervals (with some extensions out of respect for cheering spectators, plus to reach timepoints and water stations) through the typically difficult Point Grey Kitsilano stretch. Looking at my watch, realizing I was moving somewhat slower than before, I had to start doing some math. The course cutoff is 6.5 hours, and while I wanted to enjoy the course, I also wanted to make sure I officially finished the marathon. It would be tight, but I could at least do it within six hours as long as I held firm.

While obviously growing weary, my body was holding up quite well and the running wasn’t a heavy slog. This was a welcome contrast to past long runs and marathons, where at this point running at all was like concrete was tied to your legs. The long workouts, with their faster intervals 3-4 hours in, has indeed prepared my body to handle the later hours of the marathon… a prime goal this time around.

I turned upward to the Burrard Bridge, and for the first time running this marathon I actually walked portions of the uphill bridge, maintaining the minute intervals. One moment of pride was passing the Botts dot on the north end of the bridge that rolled my ankle and KO’d me last year. Not this time!

Keeping the run/walk steady through Stanley Park, something weird happened. It actually got really cold! The overcast had held firm, and now a steady breeze started hitting us, plus obviously we were right next to the sea. On the one hand it didn’t feel good in the moment, but on the other it eliminated any overheating possibility. The only concern I had now was whether I’d bonk. I not only took the fuel I had brought, but also took Xact bars at each of the 3 stations that offered them. I consumed the last one I had between all this right before Siwash Rock, and we still had another 8-9km to go. I felt fine (for someone who had just run 21-22 miles), and now the hope was to feel fine running up Pender Street.

Now, I was certainly tired, and certainly counting the remaining miles/kilos. What I was also doing was passing people, and then unexpectedly not seeing them again. Even with my walking intervals, I was outrunning/pacing other late pack runners in the final 5K.

As we passed the final lighthouse on the seawall for the final couple kilos, I started extending the run segments as my mile/kilo splits started getting better. My last walking segment was along Georgia Street in the final kilometer, then I ran out the rest of the way to the finish just under 6 hours. Not bad for running the whole thing easy and actively walking much of the final 2/3 of the course. And sure enough, I did not bonk. I felt intact all the way. Not that I wanted to, but if I had to run another 2 miles after the finish I could have.

The main parts of me that were beat up afterwards were both my ankle joints and my gluteus medius (abductors). I was obviously quite stiff and walking was a challenge. Like past marathons, I had expected to pass out until nightfall once back at the hotel. But it turned out that after a big ramen meal down the road, I only needed about 2-3 hours to nap before getting out for sushi dinner, then turned back in and slept normally before waking up at dawn as normal (if not still somewhat sore). Walking felt substantially easy and I went out for morning coffee.

I had the whole week after the race in Vancouver before having to come back. I walked quite a bit around the West End of Vancouver (up and down lots of hills) every subsequent day, 5-10 miles a day, did strength train a couple times at the hotel gym during the week, and even took a 10K run up to Prospect Point and back later in the week.

Despite this, my soreness gradually subsided each day. In fact, when I checked out and flew back the following Saturday, I had no discernible pain! I might have still been weary, but wasn’t sure how much of that was all the tourist walking that following week versus from the marathon.

Much like February when I visited Vancouver to run the First Half, I didn’t bring any supplements with me. Like before I wanted to minimize customs issues and not need to bring/declare anything. However, I didn’t feel great during that trip having cold turkeyed any supplement intake for that 3 days. So when I arrived I bought a jar of marine collagen, a small jar of whole food multivitamins and a jar of magnesium bisglycinate, took each daily and discarded what was left when I departed.

I think the difference maker, aside obviously from all the easy walking generating circulation, hormones, recovery, etc… was the collagen. I take 12g every weekday at work with my coffee, and decided I wanted to maintain that in Vancouver. I would drink it with hot water at my hotel (which provided a kettle), and throughout every day I took anywhere from one to three 12g scoops with hot water. Collagen is key to rebuilding tissue, muscles, tendons, etc…. and along with eating the great food in Vancouver (I pretty much just eat ramen and sushi, occasional poutine, steak and eggs some mornings), along with the vitamins (a fraction of what I take at home), not to mention enjoying the fresh sea level air, mixing in the collagen probably helped my body rebuild more quickly than before.

You could also argue that because I made sure not to race the marathon full-out, I didn’t damage my body as much as I would have had I gone all-out. Sure, though a) the running segments were faster/harder than I probably would have “raced” the marathon, and not only was I doing them in miles 24-26 while exhausted but those segments were longer than the earlier ones, b) Vancouver is a harder marathon than others, with its big hills, and c) I didn’t do a normal taper: I only took the weekend before the marathon off from training, I pretty much trained normally up until before I flew out, plus I flew in closer to the marathon date than I had before which added some stress, plus even trying to take it easy I still had to do a lot of walking in hilly Vancouver before the race. So while well rested for the race, I wasn’t exactly coming in on a true taper either.

Was the training experiment a success? Did a large volume of much easier aerobic training with less emphasis on full runs get me ready for a marathon?

First of all, obviously yes and obviously no.

Obviously yes, I built a lot of aerobic endurance and efficiency that allowed me to stay level in the later hours, and throughout stressful situations as the heat/sun came in and I had to adjust on the fly to stay on track.

Obviously no, in that I only had a couple months of that base training, and obviously coming in I wasn’t going to be equipped to race a marathon full out. Any attempt to do so would have crashed and burned this time.

The problem with my new cross training driven approach and this marathon wasn’t avoidable: I discovered and locked it in during early March, too late for this marathon. If I figured it out last fall, I’m probably ready to rock and go for a pretty good PR. This is an approach that requires consistent months or years to solidify your base fitness, so two months isn’t going to cut it. I knew that up front and adjusted my expectations accordingly.

I’m taking the weekend off from training and will probably do so through the end of the month, which means no long sessions for now. Obviously, even if I’m feeling okay, I need to make sure I fully recover from Vancouver first, and this will keep the overall volume down. The weekday sessions will remain easy but go as long as I can comfortably maintain. Then I’ll add the 3+ hour Saturday session back in where applicable (currently thinking of doing it every other weekend), gauge how that feels and work on it from there.

The schedule will remain as solid as it did in March-April, and two of the workouts will eventually be extended Z2-Z3 runs up to an hour each.

I’ve recently been reading a lot of the work of Alan Couzens, a Colorado triathlon coach who has done a legion of research on endurance training. He gauges training by MET, Metabolic Equivalency (1 MET = 1 cal/kg/hour), and he has noted that the right intensity for easy training should be 3-6 MET. It turns out that easy running and most endurance training is well above this, and that most endurance athletes are actually overtraining. Most easy running is done in the neighborhood of 8-12 MET, with any faster running even higher. Meanwhile, most cross training machines fall in the 5-8 MET range, and brisk walking is closer to 3-5 MET.

Couzens still does argue that you need those harder sessions, just that for optimal health and athletic development you need to cap that work at 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week. He also specifies that you should do a substantially large amount of volume (he advocates for top level athletes to do 25-30 hours a week!), just that nearly all of this volume should be 3-6 MET, which is WAY less intense than what most athletes consider a recovery workout.

This could explain why most endurance athletes, even the best ones, can’t keep up their peak or desired training for more than a few years before burnout or decline, why so many get injured, and why so many have to be inconsistent with their training e.g. train at their desired volume for months, then have to train far less or not at all before resuming. It may also indicate that periodization and isolated 12-24 week dedicated training cycles are necessary evils of the folly of our commonly accepted overtraining approach.

Of course, by the time I really got into Couzens’ work it was only about a few weeks before Vancouver. I had done so much of my training on the ARC Trainer, on which itself I averaged about 6-7 MET, a little too high for what Couzens considers the 3-6 MET sweet spot for easy training. Even the spin bike I average about the same, maybe 5-7 MET. So even what I considered lighter aerobic cross training was probably a bit too much.

However my recent work with faster treadmill walking, in the 3.5-4.5 mph range, is right within the 4-6 MET sweet spot. Plus, it’s more running specific while being low impact. My longer workouts actually fit the sweet spot perfect, because the average of my tempo running intervals with the slow walking intervals averaged out to about 4-6 MET. So I’ve been focusing more on that faster walking in longer aerobic sessions, using the ARC Trainer more in shorter sessions (where my heart rate doesn’t quite get high enough to push me too far above 6 MET).

This is a much broader and hotter button topic than the intended scope of this post, so I’ll leave it for it and of course come back to it later. But now the training I’ve been doing combined with the indirect feedback from Couzens’ work has given me another long term experiment. Maximizing my volume within this 4-6 MET sweet spot and focusing on effective running for 120-150 minutes a week, what kind of fitness will that give me on race day in October? I am willing to crash and burn my next marathon (hopefully better than that!) to find out the answer. I will keep you posted. And I will have more to say on all this going forward.

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