"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

- George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

Monday, May 3, 2010

The 21-Miler Crash: Assessing The Damage And Picking Myself Up

Of the 64 training runs over the last 16 weeks, and of the 750+ miles I've logged since I began running last June, the final three of Saturday's 21-miler have been the most difficult. Maybe it was just a bad day. Or maybe I should have stuck with my normal 2000 calorie pasta dinner 36 hours beforehand instead of going with some homemade raisin and cinnamon oatmeal. Or maybe I stayed up a little too late on Thursday night (screaming and yelling in vain as I watched my beloved Blazers get eliminated from the NBA playoffs) and couldn't make it up on Friday night. Whatever it was, the the final three miles left the realm of "this is fun" and ventured into "why the heck am I doing this" territory. Definitely slammed right into a wall. I'm not too concerned with having a bad day. I've had some really good weeks of training of late and I'd certainly rather get it out of my system now rather than on race day. It would be a wasted opportunity, though, if I didn't try to figure out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. I've spent the last 48 hours reflecting on what I was feeling and thinking pre- and post- wall crash. I've also gone back and reread a few articles that I've archived the past few months.

First and foremost, it was back to basics: Energy 101. I pulled out a great article by Sara Latta written for Marathon & Beyond magazine in 2003. A quick refresher about the way carbs and fat are used for energy: fat must have oxygen while carbs can be used with or without oxygen (aerobically or anaerobically, respectively, though anaerobically is much less efficient). The body uses a combination of carbs, in the form of glycogen, and fat to produce energy (75/25% at a reasonable pace estimates Dr. Dave Martin, as cited by Latta). Extended exertion begins to flip these percentages until the body is out of glycogen and must rely completely on fat.

Latta then writes the following:
"Even if you’re racing at a reasonable pace and you’ve done a good job of carboloading in the days before the marathon, you still have only about 2,000 calories worth of glycogen stored in the muscles and liver; that’s about enough to get you to—surprise!—mile 20. If you manage to deplete your glycogen reserves, say hello to The Wall. As mentioned before, burning fatty acids requires plentiful oxygen, so as fatty acid metabolism increases, your heart must work harder to pump more oxygen-carrying blood to the muscles. It may be difficult or impossible to maintain your pace, especially if you’ve lost enough water through sweat to become even slightly dehydrated (this causes your blood to become thicker and therefore harder to pump). In addition, fatty acid metabolism itself requires glucose; as someone once said, “Fat is burned in a carbohydrate oven.” "
As 150 watt light bulbs started going off in my head, I did some quick math. My Nike+ sportband estimates I burned 2,383 calories over my 21 mile run. That's 113 calories/mile. I crashed at mile 18. 18 miles x 113 calories/mile = 2034 calories burned. Certainly there was some fat being burned along the way, but more than anything else, I think I just ran out of energy, or more accurately, burnable fuel. Plain and simple.

On any run longer than 5 miles I've been carrying a handful of dates with me. They're basically pure carbohydrate and I can chew and swallow them with a gulp of water as I run. I don't particularly like the taste of them, but I tolerate them and they're practical. At mile 18, in addition to crashing, I also popped one in my mouth. It tasted so good. So I had another. And then another. I wanted to eat the rest of my supply then and there but decided against it, instead rationing the remainder for the final few miles. I've concluded that my body was begging for the carbs, completed depleted at this point.

So what to do?

I need to do a better job of hydrating on longer runs. It's difficult because I don't want to carry a gallon of water with me. On Saturday I used a three 8oz water bottles stashed at various locations along my route. I could have used three more bottles. I also need to carry more dates (I packed 14 for a the 21 miles) and I need to begin eating them earlier in the run (usually I don't even think about tapping my supply until mile seven or eight). Hydration on race day shouldn't be a problem. Aid stations every two miles or so will offer ample opportunity to get as much as I need. I'm also confident that if I can figure out how many dates I need to carry, that the aid stations will be solid constant reminders to be eating them (pop one in as the station approaches, take the water to wash it down).

The second thing I need to improve is my mental strategy. I got lost in what I was doing Saturday, and not in a good way. I turned back to the four types of mental strategies discussed in a 1998 study which described by runners in the 1996 London Marathon (a study which Latta also cited). I've written about them previously, but to review, they are internal and external association and internal and external disassociation. Lately, especially on longer runs, I've been caught up too much in internal disassociation thinking. In other words, I try to keep myself distracted by thinking too much This is making me bored. I need to focus more attention on internal associations (how do I feel? How's my breathing? Am I relaxed? Are my arms too high? How's my form) and external associations (things like running the tangents, looking for the next aid station, smiling at race volunteers, etc--things easier to do during a race than at 6am by yourself on a lonely road, by the way).

Too much internal disassociation invites a crash. To quote the researchers, "It is likely that being distracted from sensory signals and important aspects of the task meant that runners were not able to judge their pace very well and failed to stay fully hydrated, contributing greatly to ‘hitting The Wall.’ ”

I'll have the chance to work on these things during the next two weeks. After that, it's time for tapering. I'm really looking forward to that time, actually. I still have some building to do the next few weeks, but I'm also excited to see how my body will respond after giving it extra time to rest and recover during the last few weeks. After that, Race Day! 33 days left. It's coming quickly. I'll be ready.

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