#AskCoachCourtney: Do I have to run a 20 miler when I train for a marathon?

#AskCoachCourtney: Do I have to run a 20 miler when I train for a marathon?

Welcome to #AskCoachCourtney! Each week or two, I take questions from my loyal readers and followers. I had a few submissions this week, and this one stood out to me because it’s often debated: Is a 20 mile run a standard necessity during marathon training?

The short answer: No.

There are a lot of coaches who would disagree with me (Hal Higdon included), but based on what we know about the science of running and high impact exercise, whether you run 20 miles during marathon training or not is individual and varies depending on your easy run pace, goals, and more.

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Recap: 2016 Akron Half Marathon

Recap: 2016 Akron Half Marathon

For months, I broadcasted a time goal that I knew I probably wasn’t entirely ready for: a sub two hour half marathon. Momentarily, part of me thought that I might be able to pull it off, but deep down, I didn’t think I was ready. My hope was riding on the race atmosphere, not my ability. I can run 5ks and 10ks at that pace and even faster, but the thought of running 13.1 miles at 9:00/mile made me kind of hate running. And because of that, I was discouraged through my training and didn’t feel the motivation and passion for running that I’ve always felt.

Last year at the Akron half marathon, I remember starting out in Corral C with the 11:00/mile pacer. I passed him. Then I passed 10:41. Then I passed 10:33. I finished it below 10:30/mile, and I was so shocked and surprised.

This year, I stuck myself in between the 8:58/mile pacer and the 9:10/mile pacer. I bet you can see where this is going: I started too fast, and that was the end. Then the 9:33 pacer passed me. Then the 10:41 pacer passed me. I ran so fast at the start that it was impossible for me to keep up. At one point, I ran a 12:06 mile. 12:06! Talk about discouragement. I shot myself in the foot by trying to force myself to hit a time that I wasn’t ready for, despite how many times I told myself I wasn’t going to do that.

So I settled in. I was texting a friend of mine and he finally said “Just put your phone away and go.” That was the first time I ever had my phone out on a half marathon course, but I completely fell apart and didn’t know what to do. I even told him I was dropping out, and he said I wasn’t going to do that – so I kept on going and tried to enjoy the course.

And I did. Once I took the pressure off of myself and stopped crying at hydration stops, I picked up my pace and kept on running. I high-fived the signs that kids were holding that said, “TAP FOR EXTRA POWER.” I actually ran up the hill that takes up nearly all of mile 10 (it’s criminal, isn’t it?), and I was enjoying myself and my run.

Suddenly, I felt like I loved running again. I looked ahead and thought, there it is – I was wondering where that feeling went! So I coasted along, at a slower pace than I imagined, and got my medal at the end. Although…I refused to let MarathonFoto snap my picture afterwards because I was sobbing too much! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also disappointed that I didn’t reach my time, but it wasn’t nearly as discouraging as I thought it would be.

The finish line was about a mile away from my hotel. I started walking to my hotel, and at about .5 miles in, I realized that I casually walked away from a half marathon for the first time. When I ran Akron last year, there was no leisurely walking because I tore my hamstring. My husband and I had to walk up hill to our car, and I stood at the bottom, in tears, wondering how the hell I was going to get up there. I was out for four months and in physical therapy.

In Pittsburgh, I almost had a DNF next to my name. In mile one, I felt the lovely onset of ITBS for the first time. I limped to the end of the race and couldn’t leave the medical tent. When I did leave, I still wasn’t able to bend my left leg. Soon after, the same thing happened to my right leg.

In other words…for the first time, I walked away from a distance race and felt like if I had to keep on running, I would have been able to. I felt tired from not sleeping so great the night before, but I didn’t feel hurt or absolutely dead. I realized that even though I didn’t meet the time I planned, I am definitely getting stronger.

Something else I noticed at the end of this race is that I couldn’t wait to go running again. After the first two half marathons, I knew I’d be back out there again – but I felt pretty off. I am sure some of it was the injuries, but there were definitely some other reasons that I didn’t quite understand.

This year, I can’t wait for my 10k in October and for my next distance race. I feel like I’m forcing myself not to go out and run today! For my 10k, I’m not setting a time goal. I’m just going to train like I know how to train and go for it. Setting crazy time goals puts me in a mental place that I don’t like.

What I want you to understand, then, is that there are so many victories we forget about. There are so many more reasons to celebrate than time goals. I don’t want to discount time goals at all; meeting a time goal is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated. But sometimes, we try our best and it doesn’t work out. In that case, don’t forget the other gems of victory. In this year’s Akron half marathon, I’m celebrating walking away from a race injury free, running almost 30 minutes faster than I did on May 1, and rekindling my love for the sport I plan to partake in as long as I can.

Happy running, and happy celebrating – no matter what!

My First Encounter with “The Wall”

My First Encounter with “The Wall”

We often hear distance runners talk about “the wall.” You know – the proverbial bricks that keep you from your goals, usually toward the end of a marathon. Honestly, I’ve only heard people talk about “the wall” in marathon running: “We all hit ‘the wall’ in mile 20; it’s not avoidable.”

When I started training for half marathon #3 some months ago, I set a time goal: sub 2 hours. My half marathon PR is 2:15:38, and that was my very first half that took place at the end of September 2015. I’m running that same race again, the Akron half marathon, on September 24. I know the course; I know what to expect. The only difference is that I am trying to run about sixteen minutes quicker than I ran last year.

I knew my previous training regimen wouldn’t cut it this time around. I’d used Jeff Galloway’s “to finish” plans, and my goal for this race is beyond finishing it. Note: I’m not indicating that finishing a race isn’t an accomplishment; I’m indicating that I wanted to challenge myself more.

I settled on Hanson’s Half Marathon Method. In this book, the authors talk about hitting “the wall” in a half marathon. I shrugged it off because I sincerely believed that it only happened to marathon runners. I was wrong. While I strayed from following Hanson’s plan to a tee, I did create my own plan that was intense and required several more miles each week than I’ve ever run.

Last night, I had a four mile run. My husband was in Cleveland for the night for school, so I knew I’d be on the treadmill after my two year old went to bed. All day, I was rolling my eyes because I didn’t want to run on the treadmill, but I didn’t have a choice. So, I hopped on the treadmill.

Within minutes, my legs were so fatigued that I felt like I couldn’t go anymore. Moreover, I was in total mental anguish. I felt defeated. I felt panicked. I felt like I was going to have a full-blown mental meltdown, and that’s pretty much what happened.

At 1.5 miles, I pulled the treadmill key out and threw it. I sat down on the belt and cried, cried, cried. I told myself to shut the f*ck up and get back on the treadmill because it was a four mile run, not a 24 mile run. And I did, but I ended at 5k (3.1 miles). I physically and mentally couldn’t finish a lame, four mile easy run. What the hell? I thought to myself.

Most of you probably saw my Instagram post last night where I summarized how I felt. The outpouring of comments and positive vibes was amazing…you guys are awesome and I love being part of the running community on IG. What struck me, though; what made me have an “oh, so THAT’S what it is” moment, is when a few of you commented that you, too, had hit “the wall” at some point. Even though I felt like I wanted to crawl into a hole, I also felt like I’d made it through some strange running-right-of-passage.

I’m sure people debate whether or not “the wall” is mental, physical, and can happen in such a short period of time. Some say it’s all about glycogen depletion; others say it’s failure to train at an appropriate level of ability; still, others say that it’s more mental than physical. My take: This has to be one of those things that is different for everyone.

It seems like “hitting the wall” comes from exerting yourself, over and over, and reaching a breaking point. Everyone reaches a breaking point differently. For some, maybe that doesn’t happen until mile 20 of a fast-paced marathon. For others, like me, I totally believe it can happen at the end of an extremely intense training cycle (especially if you’re not used to this type of training). Whatever it takes, trust me – you’ll know when you hit your wall.

Consider it the branding of someone who continually works to be better, to be faster, to be stronger. If improving was easy, all of us would be at the Olympic trials. It isn’t easy, though – far from it. Sometimes you can push through it and sometimes you can’t, but what’s important is that you don’t let a run or two or three define you.

What is your experience with “hitting the wall?”

Taper Toolbox: Keeping Yourself Sane & Healthy Before A Race

Taper Toolbox: Keeping Yourself Sane & Healthy Before A Race

Taper weeks affect all runners differently. Some of us enjoy the decreased, easy mileage; others have a hard time taking it easy for the last couple of weeks before a race. Either way, there’s a lot more time to think into everything.

It can be tempting to want to over-prepare or alter your routine the race, but this usually isn’t for the best. My Taper Toolbox has some essentials that I base on both experience and running education; hopefully it helps ease your mind as you approach your race! Read more

The “Last, First Last” – An Open Letter

The “Last, First Last” – An Open Letter

Dear Mother Who Changed Three Diapers While Screaming At Her Kids Before The Race,

To answer your question, yes – this is “it.” This strong willed, soft-hearted girl is “it” for me. I’m used to hearing “time for another one yet?” and “Aww, you have to have one more!” So, your over-used comments and your tarnished respect for a mother who isn’t just like you (and the majority of mothers) is something I’ve learned to freely let go of.

What struck me is your canned, assumed mindset: “Must be nice!”

Sure, mom of three overly-energized, wild children. In many respects, it is “nice.” It’s “nice” to focus all of my time, attention, and effort on the one, tiny human being who makes me whole. It’s “nice” to put one child in bed and have time to myself immediately afterwards. It’s “nice” to spend my days and nights with one, mostly easy-going little girl who tells me I am her best friend.

All of that is very “nice.”

What you fail to internalize is that pressure I face, brought on solely by father time, to understand that every moment is more fleeting than I realize. There will not be another “first race.” There will likely not be another “first” of anything that has been ironed, folded, and neatly tucked away in dresser drawers of the past.

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Never again will I put her into a jogging stroller for the first time, my hands shaking as I adjust the straps and cover her tiny feet with the blanket she was wrapped in at the hospital.

Never again will I dress her for her very first race, suddenly becoming irate about the size of her shoes and frantically trying to feel my way to where her toes are.

Never again will I whisper the words “It’s your first race ever – this is very special” despite a two year old’s perception of how time actually passes.

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Please respect that every “first” for her and I is every “last first.” Not “the last first with my oldest” or “the last first with my middle child” or “the last first with my third and final baby.” Let that sink in: Every first, is our last first.

We spend moments and days and hours fiercely swimming through and blindly navigating our own lives. Time as mothers becomes measured by the amount of times we are asked the same question or the last ten minutes before bedtime that feel like an utter eternity.

Your “moments” and mine are different. I don’t want your life; I don’t want your moments. I don’t want to corral three kids who can’t stand still for more than four seconds at a time. No, I don’t want to spend two hours per night wrestling multiple children to sleep. You are correct – I would rather have a quiet, clean house to keep my sanity.

But, mom-of-three – I respect your moments. I respect that your cup overflows, sometimes in the most overwhelming of ways, on a daily and an hourly and a minute-to-minute basis. I give you more credit than you realize for getting out of the house and to a kid’s race on time.

And all I am asking for is that same respect. You don’t want to be me, and I don’t want to be you – but making such assumptions about my life and my choices undermines all the very real, raw reasons that went into my decision to make her my one and only.

I don’t expect an apology; I wouldn’t call myself offended. All I ask is that you understand that every decision in motherhood, including the decision to quit making decisions, comes with a price to pay.

You’ll yearn for some sleep, some quiet.

I’ll yearn for one last, poor rendition of “Six Little Ducks” in that pink chair in the nursery, the one stained with the salt of tears and aged with art of persistence.

In the silence or chaos of the early morning hours, I respect your moments and you can respect mine.

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