Thursday, November 13, 2014

How do I manage frequent marathons?

I get questions from coworkers, casual acquaintances and even strangers wondering how I run multiple marathons as frequently as I do. Other than sharing information with friends on Facebook, I tend to be fairly quiet about my accomplishments. Coworkers know about my marathoning and may ask me where I was over the weekend and if I ran a race, and I’ll answer honestly; but unless they ask follow-up questions, I don’t offer up my entire crazy race schedule. People in airports and airplanes may see my medal (which I sometimes wear as explanation for my slow, limping gait) and ask if I just ran a marathon. I’ll tell them yes, but won’t tell them I have another the following weekend unless I’m asked “when is your next one?” Basically, I never try to toot my own horn, and I also don't like tons of attention. Yes, it’s a special feat to run a marathon. Yes, it’s unusual to run more than one in close succession. But I am nowhere near a superstar. I know many runners who are faster, many who run more frequently. But, back to the question: how do I do it? I’ll provide some guidance for those who want to run a lot of races. Just keep in mind that individual results vary, and I encourage anyone to see a doctor if they are experiencing running injuries or health complications.

With Cowboy Jeff and Jody after 2013 Madison Marathon in Montana, day 2 of a tough double

1. You must initially train for the distance. If it’s your first long distance race, you should follow a structured training plan for several months, gradually building your endurance and slowly increasing your distance almost up to the distance of your race, whether it be marathon or half marathon. I trained with a group for my first few marathons, which were spaced out by six months or more, like “normal” people schedule their marathons. And when I came off a several-year break from running long distances, I trained up again. You' don't need to train with a group. You can find basic training plans online or in distance running books, and use them to train on your own.

2. Then you can maintain. Once you know you can go the distance and your body has done it, you need to maintain. Depending on your race frequency, you may only need to do shorter “long runs” in between your races. If I’m running at least one marathon per month, I find this to be the case. If I’m running less frequently, I may need to throw in a longer long run.

3. You should be injury free. I don’t always follow my own advice, but I should. If you have an injury, you should seek – and then follow – medical advice from a doctor who understands runners. Give yourself the time to heal properly. Otherwise, you risk making your injury worse, or not being able to run at all.

4. Learn what works for you. This relates to everything from nutrition to clothing, to other gear, to pre-race rituals. Test things out when you’re training so you know what works for you when you’re racing. If you plan on running frequent marathons or halfs, you don’t want to constantly second-guess what you’re going to eat or wear; you want those things to be no-brainers.

5. Start with races a couple weeks apart. If you think you want to race a lot, give yourself a couple weeks of recovery in between races and see how your body does with this. If you feel good for your second race, then you can consider shortening the time in between multiple races.

6. Try an “easy” double as your first. By “double”, I mean two races on back-to-back days, typically one event on Saturday, and another of the same distance on Sunday. If it’s your goal to do this, pick two races that are close together geographically so you minimize your time spent traveling in between. And pick two races that are not too challenging for you physically. Don’t make things harder by choosing high-altitude races if you’re from sea level, or tough, hilly races that will over-tire you. And make sure that you can safely finish both races within the allowed time limits. After you successfully complete your first “easy” double, you can think about trying a more challenging one.

7. Know thy race logistics. If you’re doing a double, something as simple as race packet pick-up can become a problem. What if you can’t make it to the city of your second race before the packet pick-up closes? Not all races allow you to pick up your bib the morning of the race. You should know the schedule ahead of time so you’ll know if you can get your own packet, or if you’ll need to find a fellow runner to pick it up for you. Also, know that some races do not allow packet pick-up by others. Read the race rules or FAQs to verify the policy before you register. And also know that sometimes the rules can be bent, so don’t hesitate to email the race director to explain your predicament and nicely ask if they can find a way to accommodate you.

8. After every race, refuel and rest, at least a little bit. This can be challenging if you have a busy life schedule, and especially challenging when you’re running a double. But it is very important to refuel and rehydrate as soon as possible after a race. I like to have a recovery shake ready for me at the finish line, either in my car or my checked bag. It gives me an initial boost of calories and nutrition, then I follow up a little later with a real meal. I partake of my celebratory beer at the finish line, but I follow that up with water. I try to get a little rest in between races. If that is only one day, then a nice nap and/or a full night’s sleep are important. If that break in between races is a week, then I’ll give myself a couple days off of running and try to get extra sleep. It’s not always possible to rest and refuel the best way, but I do what I can.

9. Expect slower race times. If you’re just starting to run frequently, you may find your average marathon or half marathon time increases. Over time, some frequent racers can work themselves back up to their faster pace, but many of us cannot. I run slower than I used to, and it is due to running more frequently. Sure, if I’m still sore or fatigued from my previous race, I’ll probably perform slower. But there are also indirect causes for my slower pace. Injury has been a major factor for me. I’ve run through injuries against better judgment (see #3 above), and because of that, I’ve greatly reduced the number and distance of my training runs in between marathons. That means that my overall fitness has suffered. Basically, I’ve saved my running miles and saved my injured foot/leg/whatever for marathons. This has enabled me to complete the races, but at the expense of my speed. I have recognized this trade-off while I’ve been pursuing my aggressive marathon goals. And now, I’m planning to shift to less frequent marathoning, better training, and hopefully, faster times.

10. Learn to deal with unsolicited advice and questions. You’ll inevitably talk to someone who learns how many races you’re running and insists that you’ll ruin your knees or other body part. Usually, this person is not even a runner. Learn some quick retorts like “thanks for your concern; actually, I feel great” or “my doctor supports my healthy obsession.” Some people will also ask how you can afford to run so many races, especially if they involve travel. To be honest, it is no one's business. But I'll still usually respond with some explanation. For me: it is my primary hobby; I do not spend a lot of money on other things, I do not buy expensive clothing, electronics or cars; I religiously track my airline and hotel points and use them to redeem free flights and rooms on occasion; and my kids are all feline, so there are no college funds to feed. I'll tailor my response to the person who is asking. You don't have to give anyone any sort of explanation (except, maybe your spouse), so you can also practice a polite way to dodge the question.

It’s definitely possible to run multiple marathons or half marathons in a short period of time. There are communities of runners who do it. The support of these running clubs has been invaluable to me as I’ve worked toward my frequent marathoning goals. If you’re planning to run frequently and are not already a member of one of these clubs, check into the membership requirements to see if you quality. There are other clubs for frequent racers, but these are the three I belong to:
Marathon Maniacs
Half Fanatics
50 States Marathon Club

 Question: Do you run frequent races, and if so, what advice do you have for others wanting to do it?

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