Pittsburgh Marathon: A Personal Account of the Training and the Race
by Hugo Schwyzer
On May 2nd, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon. I finished in a time of 3:13:51, a PR by more than eleven and a half minutes.
I'm not really sure why I picked Pittsburgh. Why fly to the other end of the country, when California and the West are well stocked with spring marathons? Perhaps it was because of Pittsburghs reputation ("No one runs a marathon like Pittsburgh" is their motto), perhaps it was because it is the site of the U.S. Mens' Marathon Championship, or perhaps its early May time slot fit in with my training plans. Perhaps it was because my coach, Art Liberman, recommended it enthusiastically. No matter. I began training in early December, with my eyes firmly fixed on the first Sunday in May.
I have been running for only two and a half years. I started running in late 1996, largely to provide structure to my life as I went through a painful divorce. I began by running two to three miles at a time, and can still remember the amazement I felt when I looked down at my watch and realized that I had been running for forty minutes straight. I was not naturally fast. My first 5K, in May 1997 was run, with walking breaks, in a glacial 29 minutes. But I persevered, and eventually trained successfully for the 1998 Los Angeles Marathon, where I ran a 3:41:40 (much to my own delight and surprise). I lowered that PR to a 3:25:29 at last autumn's Silicon Valley Marathon, not long after hiring Art Liberman as my coach.
This most recent training season kicked off with a 5K on December 7. I hadn't run a 5K in seven months, and I had not done any speed work in the previous six weeks. The goal was to get a feel for the sort of pace I would be able to hold. I surprised myself by running a 19:46, breaking 20 minutes for the first time. I must say that nothing hurts like a 5K. the pain of The last half mile is sublime. It's not the legs that hurt as much as the lungs.
Over the Christmas holidays, I gradually picked up my mileage, and ran a 19:37 in my second 5K of the season on January 9. Not much of an improvement, but I will never complain about a PR. My girlfriend Jonelle came to both 5Ks, watched me finish both in agony, and nonetheless decided that she would join in the next race.
By mid-January, I had a weekly diet of hill repeats 8 to 10 repetitions up a moderately steep 150 yard incline. I rather liked hill repeats, and can say I certainly prefer them to track work! January 31st was my first 10K of the season, the Super Bowl Sunday, run in Redondo Beach. This was a disappointment. I had a bit of a cold, the race was run in a light rain, and I was trapped behind slow runners at the start. My goal was 41:30; I ran a 42:03. (Jonelle jogged the 5K. She was a trouper to be out there in the miserable weather with me!) The chagrin of a less than ideal time was nothing compared to the upper respiratory infection I developed the first week in February, however. On February 3, I was scheduled for my first day of formal speed work at the track hacking and coughing, I ran one hard mile and nearly collapsed. I took the next three days off, pumped myself full of antibiotics, and gave serious consideration to quitting my training program.
But I did not quit. In order to stiffen my resolve, I mailed in my entry form to Pittsburgh, and bought two non-refundable plane tickets, one for my girlfriend and myself. No turning back now! February 13: I ran the best 10K of my life to date, a 40:38 on a bright and cool morning at Playa Del Rey. My strategy was not the best I went out too fast (my first mile split was a blistering one for me 5:57) but I held on and kicked hard at the end.
As my weekly mileage climbed to just above the 50 mark, Jonelle and I broke up. I bring my emotions into my running, and though running has often been my refuge, my own turmoil did affect my training. I got too little sleep the month of March. Trying to train for a marathon while going through a devastating break-up and sleeping no more than five to six hours a night is an experience I will only be too glad never to repeat!
Mental preparedness is crucial. On March 27, I was scheduled to run my last 10K before the marathon. The night before, I had gone to sleep very depressed and sad about Jonelle, and I woke up morose and drained. I felt fine physically, however, and assumed that I would hit another PR on the relatively flat and fast course. My times in speedwork sessions suggested that I should be able to break 40 minutes, but it was not to be. Nothing went wrong physically. But just past the two-mile point in the race (while I was on pace to run a 39:40) I suddenly stopped caring. A voice came into my head, a voice I had heard before in the middle stages of races it told me to stop, rest, relax. "Why hurt so much", it asked? "Just let go", it said. I did not squelch the thought. I listened to it, and as the pain built in my legs and in my lungs, the voice grew louder. And just past the three-mile mark, I had the bizarre and wretched experience of slowing to a stop, pulling off the course. Tears of frustration and exhaustion welled up. I just did not have it mentally, and the shame was overwhelming. I realized that I would have to keep running (it was an out and back course, so I had to get back to the start line somehow). I began to jog, and then to run, again. I did not push as hard, but held a strong pace over the last two miles, and ended up running a 41:15 a time with which I would have been quite pleased a few months before, but under the circumstances, a disappointment.
It was a lesson in the importance of mental preparation. In racing and hard training, your body is being pushed beyond its normal limits, beyond the comfort zone. Running hurts. Those of us who compete should never disguise that basic truth. And when we meet that pain the kind of pain that hits half way into a 10K when another three miles at this pace seems a pointless agony we need mental tools as strong as well-trained quadriceps. I talked at length to Art, and the solution which he suggested was a pure and simple one. When the negative thought appears, tell it NO, in a loud voice. If necessary, smash a fist into your palm to drive it away. The desire to stop will come with the pain, but the voice that tries to seduce the runner into stopping must be silenced, and silenced forcefully.
The final month of training took place in a time of huge emotional turmoil. Running has always been my escape, my quiet time, what I do for me. But running is not an isolated compartment of life, and my personal pain over the break-up meant that at times, I had very, very little interest in running. Dragging myself out of bed to hit the track and do speedwork was hard enough under normal circumstances; when depressed, it seemed almost impossible. But I did it, time and again. And what I found was that I might arrive at the track depressed, but I never left the track in that state. My last hard workout was a tough one for me: 10x800 meter repeats with 400 recoveries, each run as close to 3:00 minutes as possible. By the time I finished the 10th repeat with an emphatic grunt of relief (and in a time of 2:59), my pain over the break-up with Jonelle was long gone from my mind. Aching quadriceps really can be a cure, or at least an analgesic, for an aching heart!
Tapering is hard for me my head tells me I am losing fitness as I rest, even though I have read and reread the evidence to the contrary. If I hadn't had to report in to Art, I might well have snuck in some extra workouts in the two weeks leading up to the marathon.
As it was, I arrived in Pittsburgh on April 30th, two days before the race, and settled in to my hotel. Pittsburgh is a surprisingly lovely city and the weather was TOO lovely. By Saturday the 1st, the day before the race, there was an ominous sense that the marathon would be run in ideal beach weather, in the mid to upper 70s. I had a decision to make. Should I adjust my expectations based on the weather, and slow down my planned splits in the early part of the race, or should I grit my teeth and go for my hoped-for 3:10? I wrestled with the decision, and discussed it with other runners whom I met at the pre-race pasta feed. When they heard I was attempting to qualify for Boston, they all (to a man and woman) told me to go for the best time I could, heat or no heat.
Before going to bed, I wrote out my goal splits for 5, 10, 13.1, and 20 miles on my race bib. I also wrote the names of about a dozen loved ones knowing that late in the race, I could look down and draw inspiration from those names. I got about four hours of sleep, waking up twice to urinate. (After three marathons, I now believe that over-hydration is simply not possible for me. I'd rather pee every hour on the hour, all through the night, then wake up thirsty.) After rising, I ate one and a half bagels, a banana, and a Power Bar. Unlike some runners, I cannot run on an empty stomach. I also drank a warm diet Coke and half a cup of coffee. After one last stop at the hotel restroom, I headed for the start line.
I don't like the wait in the corrals before the race. Maybe some runners do, but I find it incredibly anxiety-producing. I stretched, smiled nervously at other runners, and tried to turn my mind to my family and friends back in California. I know that I was in their thoughts, and I held their faces in my mind and studied their names on my race bib. It was already easily 60 degrees, and the sunshine was bright. I mouthed the words to the national anthem, and said a quick prayer.
If I don't say it later, let me say it now. Pittsburgh is a marvelously run marathon. The race started exactly on time, and we were off. The start, as always, was exhilarating; the cheers, the music, and the adrenaline send the runners flying off, almost invariably at an excessive pace. I held back as best I could, watching others around me weave frantically through traffic. As I had been taught, I muttered "I'll see you again" as they flew by. I managed a fairly reasonable first mile, a 7:06 about nine seconds faster than my goal pace. I held steadily to a 7:05-7:12 pace through the first six miles, which are easy and quite flat. I thought about the hills to come, and tried to push those thoughts from my mind. "Stay inside yourself", I said. "Easy does it." I felt the heat of the sun on my neck, but at this stage, it felt wonderful warm and pleasant. I felt strong and relaxed, and tried, God how I tried, to take it one mile at a time.
Honestly, I don't remember the names of all the neighborhoods we ran through. But the crowd support was consistent and enthusiastic. A particular treat about Pittsburgh: the local paper prints the name and bib number of every runner the day of the race, and it is a delight to have people perfect strangers call out your name as you run by. I attracted special attention; by pure accident (I do hope) I was given number 911. From start to finish, this was the subject of much good-natured ribbing by the crowd. I may have thought the number a bad omen when I received it; by the end of the race I was immensely grateful for it.
The bad hills come just before the half-way point. And for some reason, they seemed really bad. At mile eleven, there is one steep climb and as I headed up the hill, I made the mistake of trying to hold my pace. The effort was exhausting, and I did not succeed. At the top of the hill, I realized that I had run the previous mile in a terribly slow 7:35. I was falling dangerously off pace. Still, I tried to hold to my 7:15s, through elegant neighborhoods with tall trees that offered at least a chance of shade. But the hills continued to roll, and on each upgrade, I felt myself slowing. My half-marathon split was a 1:34:44, still on pace to break 3:10, but the heat and the hills were exerting a toll.
Somewhere around mile 16, I made the decision to abandon the shot at 3:10. With the heat, I risked collapse if I tried to hold my goal pace. I made the decision to go for my back-up goal, which was to break 3:15. The miles between 16 and 21 are always the hardest for me; Not the most painful, mind you. The real physical agony comes between 23-26, but the hardest, because unlike in the final 5K, at mile 18 the finish seems so far away and the hurting is already so very, very bad. But there were good moments too, even in the pain past mile twenty, as we started to run downhill, the crowds grew sparser but somehow more enthusiastic. I managed to smile and salute two lovely young women who shouted C'mon Hugo! with enthusiastic encouragement, and as I passed them, I thought Less than a 10K to go.
The last two miles were torture. I was running directly into the sun, and my body was wilting. I willed the negative thoughts from my mind, but I allowed myself to slow to a walk three times in the final miles, each time forcing myself to pick up the pace. Finally, the finish line appeared, and with it that mysterious, marvelous inexplicable burst of energy that enabled me to run the last 400 meters with strength and speed. And as I finished, clicking off my stopwatch, I felt that sweet relief of completion which is like nothing else I have ever known.
I missed my Boston qualifying time by less than four minutes. Had the weather been different, I might well have run under 3:10; had I run a flatter course, I might have done so as well. But to my own relief, my disappointment was minor. I knew that I had run the best possible race I could have run under the circumstances. Part of running marathons is having flexible goals which can be adjusted according to such uncontrollable circumstances such as the weather! And in the big picture, I reminded myself that I had managed to finish with a very respectable time for a guy who only took up running seriously two and a half years ago.
With Art Liberman's help, I will train this summer and fall to run another marathon, likely at Silicon Valley in October. I will try again for 3:10. But succeed or fail at my time goal, the real joy, the true success will come from the discipline of the training itself."
Editor's Note: Thank you Hugo for sharing your marathon story with us.
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