Napa Valley Marathon Race Report - 4th Place, 2:25:39

I was quite happy with my fourth place finish and finishing time of 2:25:39 at the Napa Valley Marathon this past weekend.  This race marked what I considered the beginning of my comeback to racing.  I had said in a newspaper interview a month or so ago that 2:25/2:26 would be about the best I could expect at this point in my training (after a long injury layoff for most of 2012).  But to be honest, after the last month of relatively poor training, I was going to be happy with anything under 2:30.  I thought a 2:28 would be a great day.  So I was thrilled to be able to hold on for a 2:25 with a relatively even split.  I didn't wear a watch for the race, so all I had was my half marathon split and my final time.  I went through half in 1:12:23, which means I ran the second half in 1:13:16.

The Race

By ditching my watch for the race, I was trying to reinforce the need to run by feel, as I had absolutely no idea what shape I was in for a marathon.  In the past year, I've done only one run longer than 20 miles, and in my 3 or 4 months of running leading up to this race, I only ran a few workouts.  I ran one 10 mile tempo about 6 weeks ago that went pretty well (5:40 pace or so) along with maybe four or five treadmill hill workouts over the past two months.  Hardly a buildup that inspires confidence.  That said, the 8:40 3,000m I ran last week indicated that I have at least some strength in me at the moment, the real question in my mind was: could I last for 26.2 miles?

As the race started, Cheyne Inman, my roommate from the night before, shot out to the lead and steadily distanced himself from the field.  My best guess was that I was running 5:40s or so (though in retrospect it was more like 5:30s), and Frank Corrigan joined me for a few miles early on.  He wanted to work up to the next pack and asked if I'd like to join, but I told him I'd better hold off, remain cautious.  I thus ended up running the race solo from mile 5 onward.  I focused on staying smooth and running relaxed, conserving as much energy as possible.  The half marathon split was encouraging, but I was starting to feel the pace.  I told myself to relax a bit until mile 20 and then get after it—I was thinking that in the right circumstances, I might still be able to pull out a win (i.e. if Frank and Cheyne both faded).  This analysis changed when Kevin Pool, the eventual winner, came flying by me at mile 18, asking how far to the leaders and how many runners were in front.  As Kevin explains in the Napa Valley Register post-race article, he was treating the race as a workout and ended up running it as a progression run.  He was really moving the last 8 miles, clicking off five-'O's for the most part.  

After Kevin went by, it was just about holding it together the best I could, trying to run tough and save a relatively quick time.  I gradually caught and passed eventual fifth-placer James Withers around mile 23.  I was hurting pretty badly the last couple miles, but (a) I was fighting to make sure James wouldn't reel me back in, and (b) Cheyne actually came into view and I tried to chase him down.  I was quite a ways back and didn't really think I'd have a chance of catching him, but it was a good target to chase all the same.  To my surprise, I actually did catch him about 100 meters from the end.  I tried to sprint past him, but Cheyne had been relaxing and was able to react.  I, on the other hand, was at the end of my rope and my calves were on the verge of cramping on me as I tried to go to my toes.  I don't really mind whether I was third or fourth though—the real benefit came in having someone to chase.  I'm sure that helped me get an extra 20 seconds out of myself over the final couple miles.

A Sprint Finish and the Infamous Melting Clown Face
Photo: Napa Valley Register
Thoughts on Fueling

2:25:39 is actually my second fastest marathon ever.  To me, the biggest positive from the race is that I was able to run that time on so very little training.  It tells me there is a lot of room for improvement.  The one other aspect of the race I was pleased with was my fueling strategy pre- and in-race.  My thoughts on fueling are a bit outside of the norm, but they are learned from and shared by such brilliant coaching minds as Joe Vigil and Renato Canova.  Basically, if you're racing a marathon (and you're running faster than 3 hours or so), I don't think you should be ingesting many calories during the race or during your training.  The reasons for this are several.  If you rely on refueling (via gels, drinks, etc.) during training, your body will come to rely on this, and it will burn carbohydrates preferentially.  Then in the race, as you're pushing harder than in training (again if you're actually racing, not just running a marathon), your digestive system more or less shuts down.  You can't process and use the calories like you could in training and you end up bonking because your body is burning carbs at too great of a percentage of total fuel.  Additionally, taking in a bunch of calories can cause GI distress.  And even if you are able to process and utilize these calories, you are then diverting bloodflow away from working muscles in order to do so.

The better approach is to teach and train your body to burn fat preferentially at marathon pace.  By doing this, you can make it through the whole marathon without having to rely on refueling.  And for the reasons listed in the paragraph above, this is ideal.  You train your body to do this by "embarrassing" the system (as Canova would say)—running long runs or hard workouts at marathon pace without fueling.  You may bonk in training, but this induces the necessary changes to your body's fueling preferences.  

The last component of this is that you also shouldn't eat anything (or even drink a sports drink, if it has calories) in the several hours pre-workout or pre-race.  When you eat something with carbs in it, your blood sugar spikes and fat oxidation is inhibited.  So if you slam a gel 10 minutes before the race, you've just significantly impaired your body's ability to burn fat at marathon pace.  Vigil recommends either eating breakfast 4-5 hours pre-race or even fasting after dinner from the night before.  If the race is early, the latter option usually makes the most sense.  This is what I did in Napa.  I ate dinner around 7 p.m. and didn't eat anything from then until race start at 7 a.m. the next morning.  Again, this isn't something to experiment with on race day; this should all be practiced in training in the months leading up to the race.  And this is why I was a bit concerned about my ability to make it through the race without bonking.  I had done very few workouts or long runs to induce the proper changes to my body's metabolic preferences.  But apparently what I did in training (avoiding fueling during any longer runs or workouts), coupled with the past several years of training in this manner, was enough to keep me from bonking.  I did take down a bit of Gatorade during the race (maybe 4-6 ounces) along with a bit of water (maybe 8-12 ounces), just to stay hydrated and get a few electrolytes.

The other odd factor in this whole equation is that I also run ultramarathons that do require some fueling.  So in order to get my gut to handle this, I actually do have to practice fueling in training, which is partially at odds with the principles above.  So what I do is practice fueling on short runs and easy runs.  I'll go out for 8 miles and cram down 500 calories and a bunch of water while on the run to condition my gut.  But I still avoid any calories on longer efforts, in order to encourage the preferential burning of fat.  This mixed approach seems to be work for me, and I think it is probably advantageous. Even if I was only running ultras (where I would always fuel in-race), it would still be very useful to burn fat at as high of a percentage as possible.  I just finished reading Bernd Heinrich's book 'Why We Run,' describing his buildup for an impressive 100km race (a finishing time of 6:38).  On some days, Bernd would eat a bunch right before or during a run in order to condition his gut to being full and processing fuel.  On other runs, he would go long and hard without taking down any calories at all in order to induce the preferential burning of fat.  It seemed to work for him as well.