NYC Marathon Training Recap Weeks 17, 18, and Pre-Race Check-in
This is a nested training recap and pre-race check-in — in the midst of a busy week, I took a few minutes on the subway to start writing a nervous, critical post as race day approached. But now that I have finished my shakeout run, picked up my bib, made a race-day morning and post-finish plan, I’m a bit calmer and feeling more positive about the race. Perhaps writing through my anxiety helped prepare me for the race after all!
Wednesday, October 31
The countdown to race day has been surreal. Over the past week I’ve oscillated between excitement and fear, confidence and self-doubt, and acceptance and anger, frustration, and disappointment. With mere days to go until I race, there’s no longer time to train: only time to prepare. Mentally, I need to know where I stand, what I can ask of myself, where my goals and expectations are — but I also need to prepare myself toget the most I can out of this iconic marathon.
My training plan was only 18 weeks, but I’ve been planning, training, and growing towards this race since early 2017 when I decided to complete the NYRR 9+1 program to earn a spot in the 2018 race. I raced 9 qualifying races that year and gave back to the community with a morning of volunteering, and grew obsessed with the marathon. I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting a whole year and signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon, held in November 2017.
At first, I viewed Philly like a starter marathon — another race just to try it out, before making a triumphant appearance at NYC after the long qualifying road, racing through my home city’s streets during the world’s largest marathon. I wanted to crush the NYC race, finishing in a time I deemed respectable, showing up but also showing off.
But as I trained and focused on Philadelphia last year, I found myself starting to take the race seriously. It would be my debut marathon, an exciting milestone but also setting a bar of my first finishing time. I wouldn’t ever get either that experience or benchmark again and wouldn’t be able to ignore them; as race day approached I admitted to myself how important the race was to me. I had thrown myself headlong into training and as I handled some obstacles and fears leading up to race day —from transportation to health concerns to scary weather forecasts— I panicked, made my peace with the daunting day ahead, and ultimately had an incredible experience. I set a “PR” as I ran 26.2 for the first time, reaffirmed a love of running and competition, and couldn’t wait to get another crack at the distance in New York a year later.
Now that that year has passed and I’m staring down the barrel of this marathon, I’m in a very different mindset. My excitement for the unknown of Philadelphia has been replaced with a sinking fear that I’m not prepared for this race — a knowledge I couldn’t have had a year ago. Instead of an eagerness to push my limits and run into uncharted territory, I’m certain I am less fit than I was and than I have the potential to be. I can’t shake the nauseating feeling that not only have I not been improving, I haven’t even held steady after Philadelphia. I have gotten slower and less fit. I haven’t just failed to live up to my expectations and hopes, but I have slipped further away from them. Part of this fear is based on the paces I can run, but it is also a persistent discomfort and disappointment in how I feel — less strong, fit, fast, and comfortable in my own body than I did when I successfully trained for Philadelphia.
For years, running was an uncomfortable, painful, embarrassing chore that came along with other athletic activities — a warm-up to be endured. But in the past few years, I started from scratch and grew into running, eventually coming to love it for its own sake. As I ran further and faster, I felt prouder and more at home in my own body; I ran through 2017 with an ease and comfort I can't ever remember feeling, and the process of training for and running the Philadelphia Marathon was an extension of that self-confidence and acceptance. Going through the same motions and reaching a different outcome has been taxing, to say the least. I've been working hard and trying to keep up my training, but overall my fitness and running had to take a backseat to two months of 12-hour days with few days off, and the exhaustion and disappointment played off each other and compounded as the weeks passed.
The first half of my training for New York was difficult but effective, however taking a few months off because of an injury (which also chipped away at my comfort of my body) at the beginning of the year meant I was starting with less base fitness than I was last year. I had to get back into the rhythm of training and adjust to higher mileage, and regain the cardiovascular fitness I'd finally started to see develop in 2017. But I didn't expect to remain so far behind the standard I set for myself, and as I failed to catch up I started to feel the self-doubt that would stay with me all autumn.
I want to be content with the effort, time, and achievements that I could squeeze in this fall, but after more than a year of anticipation, one successful training cycle, and an optimistic start to a second, my inadequacies are a very bitter pill to swallow. Because I have always thought of the NYC Marathon as a moment to prove myself and race hard, the thought of showing up to the starting line unable to perform my best, or even as well as I have in the past, feels lazy and uncommitted. I feel that I am abandoning or chickening out of a big goal. If I'd planned on taking a relaxed approach to the marathon from the start I don't think I would feel such immense guilt and shame. Over a year ago, I considered the NYC Marathon the race I'd be well-prepared for, eager to run, and proud to finish, but as I'm missing the first and third of those items I'm embarrassed to even consider the second.
But I don't want to be. I can't go back in time and train harder, or somehow alter my workload and schedule. I can't get physically stronger before race day, only work through this baggage before I set out for Staten Island and cross the start line. I can't will myself into a new level of fitness, but I can try to balance trying my best with enjoying an event that shuts down all of New York City, that I spent a year and half preparing for. And if "trying my best" doesn't give me the finishing time that I want, I can at least know it was the best effort I could give on race day — as opposed to giving up on myself early or sandbagging my race goals out of a fear that my best won’t be good enough. Racing through doubt and limited expectations will test my resolve to keep focused and dedicated when my initial goals are out of reach: I shouldn't let myself weasel out of the opportunity to race this marathon and push myself in the undertrained, nervous, state that I'm in. Last year I didn't think my race was a serious one until I'd practically reached the start line, despite the serious training I'd put in — but I was glad I raced my heart out that day. This year, I need to make my peace with the opposite equation: I feel undertrained, but the race will happen no matter what. I need to show up and give everything I've got, or all the training that I did complete will have been for nothing. Instead of tying my self-respect to the time on the clock when I finish, I need to consider how I approach the marathon, how I behave on the course, and how I evaluate my race in real context, not just in an imagined best-case scenario. The physical part of my race is important, and I need to race smart and hard, but the mental aspect of this marathon will be the real test for me. I hope I'm up to the challenge.
With some of my nerves and anxiety exorcised, I’m now focusing on my final carb-heavy meals and planning my race day as much as possible. I won’t be taking official transportation to the start, instead catching a ride on the Queens Distance Runners’ shuttle, which runs directly from Astoria to the start in Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island. The 5:50am departure is rough, but the relative comfort of a charter bus and simplicity of not having to take any mass transit just to reach official transportation makes it worthwhile. I’ll bike the mile from my apartment to the pickup location, and next thing I know, I’ll be eating some breakfast in the starting village!
The weather forecast is a bit chilly, but I think I’m going to stick with my plan of shorts, long sleeve shirt, favorite calf sleeves and socks, with cap and gloves to help control my body temperature. I’m considering leggings instead of the shorts, but I think when push comes to shove I’d prefer cold legs to overheating on the course. When I ran Philadelphia last year, I had to contend with rising temperatures as some rain cleared out, and ditched a jacket and cap by the halfway point of the race. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson and can decide on a race-appropriate outfit today! Similarly, I will be fueling with Clif Bloks and dates again — but don’t plan to drop anything while running, like I did last year.
Other than choosing my outfit, setting my alarm, and putting my race plan into action, I’m just counting down the hours at this point. I hope my throwaway outfit is warm enough so I don’t freeze at the start, my body cooperates, and I keep this spurt of positivity going from the moment I wake until the moment I cross the finish line and beyond.
WEEK 17 BY THE NUMBERS:
Miles Run: 23
Longest Run: 10 miles
Gym Sessions: 0
Miles Biked: 0
In terms of my actual training, the final two weeks of my plan were a typical nerve-wracking taper. In Week 17 I cut back my milage significantly, and though I had some slightly longer runs on the schedule, I decided to listen to my exhausted body and lop a few off the prescribed distances to match up with the limited mileage I’d been running over the past few months. My 12-mile long run became 10, and on the advice of an experienced marathoner, I subbed in a final marathon-pace workout for a daunting series of mile repeats. The mile repeats, he pointed out, wouldn’t make me fitter, but if I was feeling nervous about them already, they might be a difficult workout to recover from mentally. Marathon pace miles at least serve a clear purpose, and practicing that action before race-day gets some turnover in the legs without all-out effort that might also sabotage the “rest and recovery” aspect of my taper.
I haven’t been biking further than the .5 mile distance to the subway from my apartment, and as the fall weather has settled in, I’ve been looking forward to returning to my full-length bike commute. But in these last, critical weeks, I’ve been taking it easy physically and avoiding potentially dangerous activities like dashing through midtown Manhattan on a rickety old bike! After a tuneup for my bike and a new medal for me, I’ll be really happy to take advantage of these crisp autumn days.
WEEK 18 BY THE NUMBERS:
Miles Run: 14.1 (pre-marathon!!)
Longest Run: 5.5 miles
Gym Sessions: 0
Miles Biked: 0
Week 18 was an even more drastic cut-back of my mileage and training volume — as I checked off the days until the race, I continued squeezing my final runs into more packed workdays. One day I decided to choose extra sleep over a run, but after two 5.5 mile days (one with 2 marathon pace miles, one run at a nice easy pace) and one final 3.1 mile shakeout, I’m now done running until I cross the start line.
I spent most of the week panicked and anxious, but after my late visit to the Marathon Expo on Friday, I finally started to feel excited about the race. The sheer volume of runners, variety of shapes, sizes, paces, goals, and camaraderie between strangers worked wonders on me: my goal pace and desire to push myself aren’t gone, but are sitting alongside a simple excitement to run tomorrow, no matter what the outcome is. I’ll be racing, but I’ll also be celebrating 18 weeks of hard work, uphill battles, and tough decisions. All the aphorisms about the race itself being the culmination of training and chipper mantras about the “journey, not the destination” make a little more sense now. I want to acknowledge the hard work I’ve put in and commitment I’ve made, not just the time on the clock. No matter what happens, I’ll still have run hundreds of miles in training, had good workouts and terrible ones, and found a way to keep pushing forward. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, and race day is an opportunity to celebrate, not just test the limits of what I’ve accomplished during this training cycle.