I had been eyeing my most recent long run on my schedule since I first decided on my marathon training plan.
That would be the longest run I had ever done. And after seeing it on my training plan getting closer and closer as the weeks went on, it felt a bit momentous. My longest run ever. It felt like it meant something. This feeling was unusual for a reasonably practical person like myself, who lacks any poetry and romance except for a strange tendency towards the dark that rears its head occasionally. But I felt like I would be crossing some sort of barrier, maybe from a runner to a real distance runner or from a wannabe Ironman to an Ironman-in-training. And, to be honest, I spent the week before the run enjoying the anticipation, even though I knew from past experiences that the culmination of that anticipation would be my walking into Rob’s place after my run and collapsing on the couch while proclaiming, “Well, that was the worst. Running is awful.” (Have I mentioned my flair towards the dramatic?)
So it was with a sense of both excitement and solemnity that I dutifully mapped out my route on Friday. I avoided the monster of a hill that I had quite accidentally worked into the last few miles of my 14 mile run the previous week, but the route was fairly hilly regardless:
Still, I was surprised at how manageable it seemed to me. It makes sense, of course, because this run was only a mile longer than the one I did the previous week, but it was encouraging to see what felt like a big accomplishment mapped out on the computer screen in front of me and thinking, “I can totally do that!” I prepared for this momentous occasion in the only way possible—I played video games after work and then spent the evening with Rob at his parents’ house, eating leftovers and playing Cribbage.
The plus-side to winter is that I don’t have to set an alarm on the weekends. I go running near midday instead of early in the morning during the winter to give it a chance to warm up a bit. So, after waking up and eating a banana, I headed over to Rob’s place for second breakfast (coffee and two small sandwiches on leftover rolls). By this point, it was only about 8:00am, and I wasn’t planning on running until about 11:00. So we sat around. I dinked around online, doing absolutely nothing useful, and Rob actually did work. Like, for his job. While he was earning a living, I scrolled through my Facebook feed too many times to count, drank a bottle of water, and ate a bowl of frosted flakes.
Eventually, I started to get antsy. It was time to get going. So I left to complete my last pre-run task—the laying out of the water bottles. Because I’m neurotic, I’m incapable of carrying water on my person, and because it’s winter, there are no water fountains working in the parks. To make sure I stay hydrated on my runs, I plant water bottles along my route. On Saturday, I planted two water bottles, one of which I would pass by twice. My water stops were planned near mile 4, mile 8, and mile 12 of my run, and I planned to eat one Shot Block while approaching each of these stops.
Once I got back to Rob’s place, I drank a glass of chocolate milk as my last bit of pre-longest-run-ever fuel and headed out the door in some capris and a long-sleeve dry fit shirt (it was in the upper 30s and partly sunny). I did my best to start out slow. I knew I had a long 15 miles ahead of me. Plus, my standard long-run route starts with a pretty significant and long hill, so I know if I start too fast up that hill, I’ll burn myself out. My pace felt easy up the hill (as it better if you are going out for a 15 miler), and I was pleasantly surprised when I hit the three-mile mark—my first “time check”—at an 8:25 pace. I had paced out the run at an 8:30 pace, but because the first three miles were uphill, I didn’t think I’d be hitting that pace yet. There was a nice downhill segment that started just after mile 3, and I was cruising. I stopped briefly for water at mile 4 and checked my time at mile 5. I was unsurprised to see that I had sped up. At this point, I remembered that this was my longest run ever. I tried to think about that as a bit of motivation, but all I could muster was a half-hearted, internal, “yaaaaay…” Then I realized I was a third of the way through my fifteen mile run already, and that brightened my spirits considerably. I didn’t have to force myself to be excited about that one.
The next three miles flew by (that particular segment of my route always does), and before I knew it, I was at mile 8 and refueling with a Shot Block and some water. About a mile before, I felt my energy start to drop a bit. The fuel and water perked me right back up, though. Shot Blocks have been wonderful fuel for me. I was surprised because I thought the motion of chewing and swallowing would be too much for me when I’m running. But it hasn’t been a problem at all. If I were running faster, the physical task of getting a gummy out and consuming might be difficult, but I haven’t had any problems at my modest pace. Additionally, the sugar plus the tiny bit of caffeine in each block gives me a noticeable boost (or maybe my fueling has just lined up with downhill sections?).
Miles 9-12 were a slog. I had already been out for over an hour, but I knew I still had about an hour left. For me, that’s psychologically the toughest part of a run. I was still running at a sub-8:30 pace, and I wasn’t really struggling to keep up that pace. I was just ready to be done. My left knee was aching on and off (my new shoes just got here yesterday, though!), and my body was just starting to feel tired. When I hit the ten mile point, I had another little internal celebration because I was two-thirds through my run, but it was less jubilant than my celebration five miles ago had been. I had either biked or run on all of the roads in this section before which gave me some idea what to expect. And I’m glad I knew what to expect because the route took me under the freeway, by way of a steep downhill followed by a steep uphill. The downhill and uphill were both very short (shorter than a quarter of a mile), but with my knee giving me some pain and my fatigue building, neither one was enjoyable.
Once I fueled near mile 12, though, I was feeling much more positive. Downhill, then a short uphill you’ve run a thousand times, then downhill to the finish. I concentrated on the rhythm of my stride. I also thought about the couch I would be sitting on soon. I thought very little about the fact that this was my longest run ever and I was almost done. Sentimentality rarely makes its way into my actual performance of tasks or milestones. The uphill section was hard, and I could feel in my legs that if the run had been much longer, I would have hit a wall. I tucked this little bit of knowledge away as something to keep in mind for my upcoming 17 mile run. At this point, I was just thinking, “Yale, Yale, Yale,” Yale being the street I would turn on to run back down the final hill. And then I turned on Yale. I still had over a mile left, but it was downhill. That made it much easier to keep my pace up, but my legs were aching. It wasn’t my joints or any scary muscle pain. It was just a deep, dull, please-sit-down-we’re-tired ache. I typically try to pick it up the last mile or so, but I knew I was far ahead of my planned 8:30/mile pace, so I let myself finish the run on autopilot. It wasn’t worth pushing myself to exhaustion over a few seconds on a training run. I had one final, annoying stoplight break literally less than a block from the end of my run. Way to ruin my dramatic finish, stoplight. And then, I was done. I slowed to a stop, gave a melodramatic groan, and then sat down in the grass before realizing that was a little silly and slowly making my way back to Rob’s place (I had to run a few houses past his to hit exactly 15 miles).
I finished the run in 2:01:44 and was surprised when I plugged that time into a pace calculator and realized I’d finished the run in an 8:07/mile pace. I ran similarly fast the previous week, and I thought that last week’s fast long run would make this one a bit slower. My fitness and recovery is definitely improving.
As I had suspected, I walked into Rob’s house and groaned when he asked me how my run had gone. Considering I knew I had run well, that felt a little disingenuous, so I clarified. “Well, I mean, it went fine, but it was a run.” He nodded in understanding. There were no fireworks or celebrations for my “longest run ever” because, as I had guessed, the moment I actually accomplished the milestone, it stopped mattering much to me (this is how you get sucked into an Ironman, people!). But still, over the next few days, I periodically found myself thinking about my last couple long runs, and not just because my sore quads were reminding me every time I tried to sit down. And I felt a kind of subtle but deep-seated satisfaction when I did. I can’t help but think that it is a Really Cool Thing that I can just go out on a Saturday morning and run for fourteen or fifteen miles. I know I’ve worked hard to get to this place, not just the past few months but with all the base-building I did for my half-Ironman and for my Olympic triathlon this summer. It has reminded me just how impressive bodies are. They really can do amazing things if they are properly prepared. Now let’s just hope that in eight months, my body can travel 125.6 miles further than it did on Saturday.