Anatomy of a long run

Yesterday’s run was always going to be a disaster – it was just a matter of degree.

It was the last of my three long runs before the Gold Coast Marathon in two weeks. So far they’d gone from bad to worse, with me walking large chunks of the last one with a misbehaving calf muscle. But I was optimistic that this time would be different. I’ve found that three is the magic number for long runs: my body complains bitterly for the first couple and then is untroubled by the third. Would this time be the same? Yes and no as it turned out.

The Doomed Run

The real reason this run was doomed is that I didn’t want to be there. For the last month I’ve been running hills whenever I can, buying maps and poring over them to find new routes, scouring the web to find exciting trail runs to enter. My GC half marathon training plan said a two hour run, and I wanted to do two hours in the hills. An hour from then I wanted to be standing in a sunny clearing in the bush, by myself, miles from anywhere, just listening.


But I knew that in two weeks time I’d be toeing the start line for the Gold Coast Half Marathon. 21.1km on a flat road, in my road shoes. It was time to get race-specific. So hill running was out. Also out was my Plan B route down past Surfers Paradise, Main Beach to the Spit and back. This has a lovely 6km sandy trail section through the trees and dunes, overlooking the beach. Once again it was not race-specific.

In Search of a Confidence Boost

So it was back to the same 23.3km route that I’d struggled though the last two weekends. If I could nail it, then I’d be comparing apples with apples, and it would be a much needed confidence boost. I’ve been feeling inexplicably apprehensive about this race, and I haven’t really had a training session to get excited about.

A few days earlier I’d cried off the 5km parkrun with tight calves. That race was going to show me what my form was like. So with no idea of my race form I decided, at the last minute, to split this run into thirds: the first 8km at easy pace (around 5:05min/km), the second 8km at moderate pace (around 4:35min/km), and the last 7.3km at my planned race pace (around 4:05min/km which is 1:26 half marathon pace).

The First 8km

Off we go and the first third was easy. I frequently had to reign in my pace as I’d look down and see 4:55min/km. But having forgotten to set the 1km auto-lap on the Garmin, it wasn’t until I switched it on at km 6 that I started to see my splits. They were a little quick but I wasn’t worried – it felt like an easy pace and my heart rate was down below 80% (typically around 82% I start to feel like I’m working a bit). Things were comfy.

Burleigh Heads

The Second 8km

Up the steps over Little Burleigh, a quick drink from the bubbler and then down to the North Burleigh Surf Life Saving Club and it was time to ramp the pace up to 4:35min/km. I found it hard to hit this pace and stay at it. One minute I’d be 4:20min/km and the next I’d be 4:45min/km. It isn’t a pace that I’ve run very often and didn’t seem to align with any natural rhythm or feeling. Combine that with plenty of walkers as I circumnavigated the lumpy Burleigh Hill track, and then the climb back over Little Burleigh, and my splits were all one the place. But it felt strong, and I felt like I’d increased my effort to ‘steady’, so all was good. Time to ramp it up for the final 7.3km at race pace!

The Final 7.3km

I’d brought a gel, but decided not to eat it. On the previous two runs I’d taken one at the halfway point – an hour from home with an hour to go. But I knew that I was going to be closing hard and gels sometimes don’t sit too well when I’m pushing it. Plus, race specific: I figured that I wouldn’t be taking one on race day, so I’d better go without.

I quickly hit 4:10min/km and then took a few hundred metres to dial in my target 4:05min/km. I felt OK – I was pushing it, but it was bearable. I’d be able to hold that for 30 minutes. A good sign, my form was right where I wanted it.

Or so I thought…


Strange Things are Afoot…

The first km lap showed 4:19. That was strange. I didn’t think I’d gone as slow as 4:19min/km pace. I tried and failed to recall a drink stop, a break to tie shoelaces, or a pause for some traffic. Meanwhile I continued on at a steady 4:05min/km pace, occasionally going under 4min/km. The next lap showed 4:12.

Not good. I knew what was happening now. My Garmin shows current pace based on my footpod. But it shows 1km laps times based on the GPS distance. The GPS distance and the footpad were disagreeing. And the GPS doesn’t lie! Clearly my footpad was not calibrated correctly and was giving me optimistic pace readings.

Bloody Footpod Calibration!

This has stung me before in the 2008 Gold Coast Half Marathon. Based on the (erroneous) pace I’d been able to hold in training, I thought I was a chance to break 1h30mins in my first half marathon. Well, come race day, my Polar watch bleeped to mark the first kilometre, but the 1km marker was nowhere in sight. 10 seconds later I passed it. At the 2km bleep I had to wait 20 seconds to see the 2km marker. And 30 seconds for the third. UH OH!

My race derailed right there. Mentally, the 1h30min target was gone, out of reach. I just couldn’t run 10 seconds quicker. 10 seconds per kilometre, over 21.1 kilometres is 211 seconds, or 3 mins 31 seconds. Funnily enough, I finished that race in 1:33:31, exactly 3 mins and 31 seconds past my target time!

Must. Run. Faster.

Back to today, and with the footpad readings out, all I needed to do was increase my pace. If I ran at 3:50min/km according to the watch, then that should end up around 4:05. Well, that’s easier said than done! 3:50 felt HARD! I couldn’t maintain it. I clocked another 4:11, then a 4:36 (stopped for a drink), then 4:11 again. Then things started tightening up and the last two kms were closer to 4:20. Not a single 4:05 to be found!

In hindsight, I’m sure I could’ve run a 4:05 if I’d really tried. I bet if someone had passed me running at 4:05 pace I could have stuck with them for a km or two at least. But at that time, I was sitting at the maximum effort level that I could be bothered delivering. People talk about your arousal level for a performance, and there was no wood today! I couldn’t push my heart rate up, and I couldn’t urge myself to run quicker.

Several hours later I find it unbelievable that I didn’t, or couldn’t, force myself to run just 7 secs/km faster. I love how running can take you right to your limits, and challenge you to break them. I wonder what I’ll do in that situation next time?

Reality check

Reality Check

This run was a reality check. And just in time. Nothing like a good failure to teach you a thing or two! Firstly I need to recalibrate my footpod! Secondly, I need to revise my race pace target. 4:04min//km is too quick. Realistically, 4:12min/km is the best I can hope for.

Unfortunately, this would result in a 1:28:37 which is outside my 1:28:13 PB from last year. I can’t aim just outside my PB! So let’s make it an even 4:10min/km. If I can hold that, it would yield a new PB of 1:27:55. If I can’t hold it, hopefully I can still get under 1h30mins. Racepace? 4:10min/km. Lock it in, Eddie!

But I can take some confidence from this run – finally I can get through 21.1km without any calf issues. And I did knock out a 1:40 half marathon. Bring on the taper!!

This entry was posted in running and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Anatomy of a long run

  1. Des Thureson says:

    A very interesting read, John! It had me thinking back to planning high school cross-country runs :). Great that you didn’t have calf issues. All the best for the Gold Coast Half John!

    • jontsnz says:

      Thanks Des – I’ll need it!

      I love how the cross-country run is compulsory at my kids’ school. It gets all those little tackers off the couch! Hopefully they’ll develop a passion for it by the time they’re at high school.

  2. John says:

    Give those calf muscles a roll with a frozen water bottle. See,

    • jontsnz says:

      I’d heard of rolling the frozen water bottle on the sole of the foot for plantar fasciitis, but not the calf. I might just give that one a go. Cheers John!

Leave a Reply to jontsnz Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s