NYC Preparations and the Double-Edged Sword

It seems to me that getting old—(I'm 30!)—is a double-edged sword. Getting older has both a significant upside and downside when it comes to running. I've been preparing for the New York City Marathon this coming Sunday, and it's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for some reasons related to this. Let me explain.

The Upside: Old Man (or Woman) Strength
This descriptor generally refers to the surprising ability of older runners to do seemingly difficult things such as not fading much in races, running well off of limited training, etc.  There are many physiological phenomena at work here (capillarization, improved mitochondria, neuromuscular adaptations, etc.), but you could call it simply accumulated aerobic strength. Basically when you've spent a long time running—nearly 20 years in my case—you start to reap some long-term benefits that are quite nice.

Think of a guy like Meb Keflezighi in the marathon. The man is 40 and still running at his peak. This is pretty astounding and a lot of it is owed to Meb's super-proactive approach to strength/stability and injury prevention and management. Simply, he's smart (and of course he has the best therapists and doctors at his disposal). But when you look at the training he does now, it is far less intense—not as far, as fast, or as frequent—than in his younger days. Meb understands that at this stage, he takes longer to recover between hard efforts and really big efforts may take too much out of him. Even so, his results aren't diminishing. As his lifetime strength has grown, he can now do more with less.

I've employed my Old Man Strength to great effect finishing 2nd place at the Soldier Field 10 Mile in 2013 and 2014 with no real training for that race distance. (Photo: Ali Engin Photography)
For me, I've started to notice some of these effects in recent years. For instance, I ran a 2:25 marathon in 2013 on just a few months running after a 9-month injury layoff (my PR at the time was 2:22:53). Then earlier in this training block, I had a an almost inexplicably strong workout that was totally unexpected. I'm on a very short timeline trying to get in shape for NYC, which comes only 7 weeks after the 100km World Championships (I was 24th in 7:01:08—race report forthcoming in the November issue of UltraRunning magazine). And the WC themselves were on the heels of another 90k ultra, so training hasn't been the best. With two weeks recovery post-WC and a bare minimum of one week taper for NYC, I was left with a maximum of four weeks to get any quality sessions in. And these were honestly my first proper workouts of the year (I did a few light fartleks or progressions building back from injury to the summer ultra season, but nothing appreciable).

I sometimes dread these first sessions back after a race or training break because they can be discouraging when you realize how far you have to go. I headed to the IU cross country course, which is a tough place to run and where I love to do strength-based workouts. The plan was to hit some 3:00 alternations—one of my absolute favorite sessions. You alternate 3:00 hard with 3:00 moderate in a fartlek fashion for 4 - 6 sets, run continuously (so 24:00 up to 36:00 running, typically building to the latter over several weeks). I haven't progressed past five sets of this session in a number of years actually, and five sets are still really grueling if done right.  

The key with this session is to run the moderate "recovery" segments quite quickly, not much slower than marathon pace. The number one goal with the whole session is to cover as much ground as possible. If you run the fast segments too hard and have to go easier on the moderate segments, you've failed to do it correctly; the fastest possible average pace for the whole workout is your goal. This workout touches on a variety of aerobic components, or energy systems, simultaneously and has loads of tangential benefits (for instance, increased muscle fiber recruitment on the faster segments, which fibers are then immediately asked to run marathon pace (MP); you reach different fibers—and teach them to be efficient at MP—in a different way than you would if you were doing a long MP tempo).

I did this session twice before my marathon PR of 2:21:20, run at Boston 2014. I ran the two sessions nearly identically, 5 sets of 3:00 alternations on the XC course averaging 5:20s and 5:21s. I thus have a good indicator workout to help see if I have the kind of fitness needed to run near my marathon PR. There are of course other factors—no one workout can make or break a marathon buildup—and this is really just a single data point of an array of data needed to know what you can run. But it's a good indicator for me nonetheless.

Back to the workout. I got started late morning a few weeks ago, my first real workout of the year. I was hoping for four sets at a not-too-depressing pace. Instead, I felt surprisingly strong and managed a full five sets. The shocker: I averaged 5:18/mile, which baffled me. That I could run this session faster than I managed before my Boston PR didn't make much sense at first glance. Enter old man strength and a resultant optimism for NYC. I knew I still needed some solid long runs and tempos to even have a chance to run near my PR, and to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm there. But this session went a long way in boosting my confidence about the race, and it was a testament to the Old Man Strength phenomenon. 

The Downside: Fragility
Not only do you slow down and recover more slowly as you age, but most folks tend to become more injury prone. The years and years of miles begin to take their toll. If you aren't very careful and proactive about correcting strength and mobility weaknesses, injuries begin to crop up. (And sometimes even if you are careful about these things!)

I've always been an extraordinarily durable runner; it's one of my main strengths compared to many more talented runners I competed against in college and after. But the last year or so I've had a frustrating number of issues. First was the tenosynovitis issue (inflamed tendon sheath) in the flexor tendon of my second toe. That is about 95% better. There is still residual fluid buildup and swelling, which may simply never go away, but it's functionally near 100%.

But since starting back running in May and June, I've now had an Achilles issue crop up. I probably exacerbated this issue by not taking it seriously enough early on and also by misunderstanding it. I've always heard about how loads of eccentric calf exercises were the key to beating Achilles tendonitis (where you drop the heel below a neutral plane, standing on the edge of a stair, in a muscle-elongating exercise). This is true for mid-point Achilles tendonitis. Turns out that this protocol tends to aggravate insertional Achilles tendonitis however, which is what I have.

The treatment protocol for the latter involves a lot of concentric strengthening of the soleus muscle and generally laying off of anything with dorsiflexion of the foot, including eccentric calf exercises. Now that I understand this, I feel like I have a good road map forward. After NYC (and—outside chance—the JFK 50??), I plan to take about 8-10 weeks off to give the Achilles a break and build some strength. I'm working with the great folks at St. Vincent's in Indianapolis, and we're going to retool my functional strength and stability routine to make sure there's no stone unturned.

So... NYC
The Achilles has been a little frustrating in the NYC buildup. I can't really double at all and I've needed to take some days off here and there to give the heel a break. I know I'm sort of holding on at this point, and I had even considered bailing on NYC. But the opportunity is really incredible (they've very graciously put me in the Pro Field), and with a few encouraging sessions like the one outlined above, I decided I needed to give this a go. I talked with my doctors and I'm not really risking anything, just delaying when I start recovery for the insertional Achilles tendonopathy.

It's hard to really know what I'll run in NYC this weekend. I've heard from many people that the course is deceptively tough, though I tend to run better on these types of courses versus pancake flat courses like Chicago. I'll try to be conservative with it, aiming for a strong finish and passing lots of guys late in the race. When I ran Boston last year, I was only passed by one person; I'd like to replicate that race style. I'm shooting for Top 20 Overall and Top 5 Americans. As far as a time, an A-Goal would be to PR (2:21:20), though I think that might be out of range. B-Goal would be 2:22:53 (my second-best time); C-Goal of sub-2:24. Most of all I just want to enjoy the incredible race atmosphere and do the best with what I have in me on race day.