Race Plans for the Next Phase

As the next phase of my training is more or less in full swing now, I thought I'd outline my planned races for this phase: the logic behind the races I've chosen and what my goals are for these races.  (Looong post, sorry.)  The number one goal this phase is to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials.  However, I'm not chasing the marathon standard (2:19:00), but rather, the half marathon standard (1:05:00), which will also get you into the Trials.  My reasoning in doing so is that a fall marathon (1) is a quick turnaround from the Grandma's Marathon that I just completed, and (2) wouldn't allow for much recovery before the Trials. 

I could potentially ramp up my training and take a shot at sub-2:19 at, say, the Chicago Marathon, or even Cal International or Las Vegas in December.  But I would have to pretty quickly move into a marathon specific phase again.  The problem with this is that you don't have time to really improve as a runner.  Do I think that I could run a sub-2:19 this fall?  Yes, particularly if I made sure my mileage was high enough, while essentially completing the same training I did from April to June this year.  But I'd rather focus the next several months on a fundamental phase, improving on my base level of fitness, before moving to a marathon specific phase where I will hopefully be even fitter than I was at Grandma's.  I still believe that I had the fitness to run 2:17/2:18 at Grandma's, but lacked the mileage (and muscular endurance) to support that fitness.  (I averaged 48 miles per week from January to June.)  Thus, if I can make a jump in base level fitness over the next several months, and also run enough mileage to support that fitness, I think a 2:15 (5:10/mile) will be within my reach at my next marathon.  Hopefully, that marathon will be the Olympic Trials.  Which brings me to point two...

If I ran a marathon this fall to qualify, not only would I be somewhat neglecting my long-term development, but the Olympic Trials would become like a victory lap.  This is the case for many guys who run the Olympic Marathon Trials.  Merely qualifying is their end game.  You go to say you did it, and not much more.  I don't want to run the Trials like this.  If I'm on the line, I want to be ready to run a big PR.  And while, obviously, qualifying for the London Team would be a long, long, long shot (and let's not put the horse ahead of the cart here—I still haven't even qualifed), stranger things have happened.  (For instance, when Christian Smith qualified in the 800 meters for the Beijing Olympics, he was ranked about 30th on time going into the Trials.)  Bottom line, I've never seen qualifying for the Trials as the ultimate goal in my training.  So if it's not in the cards for 2012, that's okay.  By 2016, qualifying will be an afterthought.  The experience at this Olympic Trials would be great, but I won't be heartbroken if I miss out.  However, this training phase of 6-8 months or so will end in a marathon, whether or not it's the Trials.  Okay.  Enough rambling.  On to the actual races this phase.

Chicago Half Marathon (9/11) – This race is a little over 6 weeks away and is the first serious race of the phase.  It's too soon for me to take a legitimate shot at sub-1:05, but the race will be useful for a number of other reasons.  First, it will be a good way to check my progress so far.  Additionally, it I can PR, it may help me to get more aid from races later in this phase.  My current half PR is a modest 1:08:45.  I'm hoping to run a 1:06 or 1:07 at the Chicago Half, which should make it easier to get comp'ed hotel stays, etc.  The racing experience for the half marathon distance will also be beneficial.  Finally, it's nice to do some of the local Chicago races.  I haven't raced this half since 2008.

Trail Runner UROC 100k (9/24) – This ultramarathon is being billed as a championship race.  Ultra running, particularly in the States, has really lacked any championship in the past.  Some races, like the Western States 100 and the North Face Endurance Challenge  50 miler (thanks in no small part to the $10,000 winner's prize) have become more or less de facto championships, but the UROC 100k is the first race to really focus on this aspect.  The race, which winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, also offers a sizeable prize purse, with $2,500 going to the winner.  I think that if all goes well, I can win, which is of course why I'm going.  In addition to the prize money, a big ultra win or two could be very good from a sponsorship and marketability standpoint down the road. 

Yet... why ultras?  Less than a year ago, I was criticizing them as lacking competition, and never really planned to do one myself.  The North Face 50 drew me in with the prize purse, and my race there last December left a bad taste in my mouth.  I know that I can and should be competitive in these races, but it's tough for me, living in Chicago, to properly train my legs for the downhill pounding in these races.  I'm working on fixing that.  I still wouldn't be interested in most ultras, but the most competitive ones are intriguing to me at this point.  The prize money is pretty decent, and I do love trail running.  Plus, the top races are plenty competitive for me, as I am by no means a world class marathoner yet.

I think my former criticism about ultras somewhat lacking in competition generally is still accurate, and will continue to be on the global stage for the foreseeable future.  The marathon is a globally competitive event.  Ultramarathons simply are not—at least not in the same way as the marathon.  And they won't be until they have the kind of money that marathons do, and the kind of participation from the East African nations that the marathon does.  It would be great to see ultramarathoning eventually grow into what the marathon is today, from a copmetition standpoint (similarly, the marathon was once a fringe event, 50-60+ years ago).  If it were already there, maybe I would take up ultra running in earnest.  However, I am really only interested in finding out how good I can be against the very best in the world, and that means I must stay in the marathon.  My roommate Dan teases me about my resistance to being called an ultra runner.  But I think of it like this:  I'm a marathoner.  I may run the mile and 5k races, but that doesn't make me a miler or a 5k runner.  I may run 100ks.  But that doesn't make me an ultra runner.  None of this really matters though... just a lot of strands in the old duder's head...  The race should be competitive and a lot of fun, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. 

Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile (10/29) – This race, first and foremost, will be great training for the NF 50 five weeks later.  I also think I may be able to run a time that will get me selected for the 100k World Championships next April (a sub-5:40:00 would put me in the eligible pool of athletes, though it will probably take significantly faster than this to be selected).  If this list from ultrarunning.com is accurate, then no American has run faster than 5:14:00  for 50 miles in the last 30 years.  I'm fairly certain that I can do that on the flat Lakefront course, and hopefully, I could approach 5 hours (6:00 pace).  I've run 6:00 pace for 30 miles in training before without really trying.  I think I could probably do upwards of 40 miles at 6:00 pace in training if I needed to, so why not 50 in a race situation?  As long as the legs hold up muscularly and the weather cooperates, I should be there.  It will be an interesting test.

Big Sur Half Marathon (11/20) – This is where I will take a shot at sub-1:05.  The race should be plenty competitive, as it has historically been, and there's some decent money on the table.  It's possible that I may take a shot at the San Antonio Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon the weekend before as well, particularly if I can get some aid to go down there, though we'll see... from what I've heard, the Competitor Group is not very liberal in this department.  Despite the ultras that I'm running in this phase, the focus is still to get into great half marathon shape, and then great marathon shape.  I will be doing long runs of 30+ miles every other weekend, and some additional hilly runs to help prepare for the ultras, but these are not counterproductive to a good half marathon.  The rest of my training will all be geared toward general fitness and then sharpening for the half.  13.1 miles at 4:57 pace is a pretty tall order for me at this point, and it will take a very good race to meet the Trials standard here, but I should be very close. 

North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler (12/3) – I decided shortly after last year's NF50 that I would be coming back again this year.  First of all, the winning prize of $10,000 is still great.  More importantly, as I mentioned in the UROC preview, a big ultra win could be very good for future sponsorship and marketability opportunities.  Last year, I hung with the leaders through 30 miles before the eccentric loading on my quads took me out.  I'll be significantly fitter this year (both in general and specifically to ultras), so I still like my chances.  The X factor remains my ability to handle said eccentric loading while I train in Chicago.  I'm doing a number of things to try to fix my previous issue, and the UROC 100k should give me an early indication of whether or not they're working. 

Olympic Marathon Team Trials (1/14) – If I qualify for the Trials, I will have 8 weeks between Big Sur and the marathon.  This is the perfect amount of time for a marathon specific phase.  The NF50 throws a small kink into the training, as I'll need a week to recover, but the strength gains from training for several hilly ultras will also be very beneficial.  As I mentioned above, I would be hoping to run 2:15 or so.  This would probably be good for top 15, maybe even top 10, as many guys will "go for it" and blow up. 

Whether or not I race the Trials, I am still doing the following two races:

U.S. Cross Country Championships (2/11) – The US XC Champs have been on my bucket list for some time, and as they're in St. Louis in 2012, I'm going to run them, regardless of where I am in my training.  If I qualify for and race at the Trials, I will have a hard time being in good form for this race, as it comes just 4 weeks later.  However, it would still be worth running for the experience, especially when it's so close to home.  If I don't qualify for the Trials, I will be racing the Napa Valley Marathon (see below), and will actually be able to be quite fit for this race.  My chances of being competitive in this case are increased by the fact that 2012 is an Olympic year.  Many guys will have just raced the Marathon Trials and thus won't be racing the XC Champs.  Many others will be training for the Track Trials and similarly won't compete.  Lastly, with World XC (sadly) changing to an every-other-year format, the 2012 U.S. XC Champs won't act as a World Champs qualifier.  Rather, they will be the qualifier for Team USA at the North American, Central American, Carribean (NACAC) Cross Country Championships. 

Napa Valley Marathon (3/4) – I'll be running the Napa Valley Marathon regardless of whether or not I run the Olympic Trials.  The main reason for this is that a few days later, I'm leaving for Botswana for 10 days with family.  I don't anticipate doing much running, if any, in Botswana, so it makes sense to race something immediately beforehand.  Huge bonus: the winner of Napa Valley wins his weight in wine.  If I do end up running the Trials, it will be interesting to try to come back and run another solid marathon 7 weeks later.  Some athletes have been very succesful with this (Charlie Spedding and Pete Pfitzinger for instance, along with countless other guys from the '80s).  It would also be good practice because you never know when you may need to run two marathons in close succession in the future.  The placement of the Olympic Trials could affect this, or I could just find myself in a Jeffrey Eggleston situation in the future. Jeffrey recently ran a 2:16 marathon in Pittsburgh a mere 5 weeks before running a big PR at the Grandma's Marathon in 2:13.  He was supposed to be a pacer for a 2:19 group in Pittsburgh, but ended up finishing the race.  I was a little puzzled by this at first, especially since Jeffrey is also racing the World Championships Marathon next month in Daegu.  But then, I read in an article that he picked up $9,000 for the win in Pittsburgh.  I'm sure they paid him a bit to pace as well, but when you're a professional runner, struggling to scrape together a living, sometimes you've gotta choose the payday over ideal race selection. 

If I don't run the Trials, this race will become the peak and focus of my current training phase.  As mentioned above, if all goes well, I'll be shooting for a 2:15 kind of time.  This will probably leave me running solo in Napa (I think low 2:20s is the course record), which is of course less than ideal for completely maxing out your racing potential, but it may help me rein things in a bit the first half to ensure a PR. 

So that's everything for this phase.  Goals, in order are to:
- Run a PR in the marathon, 2:15-2:17 range
- Qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials
- Win the North Face Endurance Challenge
- Win the Trail Runner UROC 100k
- Run around 5 hours for the Lakefront 50 Mile

Next phase, preliminary thoughts include racing the IAU 100k World Championships in Seregno, Italy (April), and running the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Duluth, Minnesota (June).