Welcome to the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon! As part of the US Air Force Running Team, my Patriotic Marathon ritual includes 23 Boston Marathons and 16 consecutive, 23 Marine Corps Marathons and 16 consecutive, and 17 Air Force Marathons and 14 consecutive. The average time of these 60 plus finishes of these three races is a hair above 2:40. With age (50 years old now) and a busy life the times are slowing a bit but the joy of running only increases. I feel fortunate to be healthy and have been running pain free for over 15 years since relearning how to run after foot surgeries.
Looking back at these marathons has given me a new perspective on running. In today’s culture there is a trend and emphasis on high-intensity training as the path to success. I agree that for immediate performance this is true, but the jury is out if we are talking about long-term health and balance if one has a busy life. There are also lots of folks who read stuff, write stuff, make claims as to what is true based on short term results, but do not actually run or are former runners.
The late Dr. George Sheehan often wrote “we are all an experiment of one”. This is true, but I think one must understand the principles of overall health and how to treat your body to keep the experiment going. Since my foot surgeries in 2000, I have not done any training which would be considered “hard” or “anaerobic” by modern extreme fitness zealots. Most proponents of “pain is gain” cannot produce this type of sustainable performance data in themselves or any of their clients or athletes. I have not missed a Boston or Marine Corps since 2000 (and have not had running related injury since then either) and despite some years of extreme weather at these races the times are all consistent with the gentle physiologic age related decline.
Here is a photo of my first Marine Corps Marathon in 1988. I was in my first year of medical school and had taken the summer off of running after four years of college running and the toll it had taken on my body. I also lived in LA that summer and tried to run one day and the air so bad my lungs actually hurt.
I quickly put on 20 pounds as I did not change my diet from the “runners diet” of low fat and high carbs (notice a bit bulkier body). On return to medical school I again found the joy in running for stress relief and to allow me to concentrate better in studies. Two weeks before the race I joined a friend for a long run and ended up running about 16 miles. He convinced me to line up with him in D.C, two weeks later where I finished in 2:34 in my minimal Nike Duelists. I was hooked. I wore an old Florida Track Club singlet given to me by my Loyola High School Phil Kirby since I did not feel like I had returned to fitness as a runner worthy of representing my University or the US Air Force.
MCM 1988- my first marathon
Unfortunately I naively went to Boston the following spring and flew down the hills in the first half of the race (1:08 split) but my quads were mashed potatoes by Boston College. So I took the T home for one of only two marathon DNFs. Learned that lesson! (the other DNF in NYC in 1991 when I lined up with severe plantar fasciitis). This next finish photo is two years later 1990 when I was chasing my first sub 2:30. In those years, the Marine Corps Race finished on top of Iwo Jima and my sub 2:30 evaporated with the Hains Point winds (miles 20-23 used to be there) and the steep last half mile climb and finished in 2:31. I again felt like a runner and wore my college colors (University of Virginia) and even the painters cap with the bill flipped up in homage to Dick Beardsley who ran Alberto Salazar to the line at Boston a few years prior.
For a great read on the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” read this book excerpt from John Brant here http://www.runnersworld.com/boston-marathon/duel-in-the-sun
So what is the “secret sauce” of long-term healthy running?
- Run for joy
- Make almost all of your runs “recovery runs”. This is when you feel better when you get home than when you went out the door
- Do not run too hard; finish each run as if you could do it again
- Keep “fast and agile” with short sprints and drills
- Keep mobile, esp in the ankles and hips.
- Keep your foundation strong–this is your foot. Wear flat shoes shaped like your foot to stand, walk, run, and play. Go barefoot as often as you can.
- Learn the skill of running and keep trying to master this. A tool like TrueForm motorless treadmill helps. (http://www.trueformrunner.com/)
- Do simple strength and “spring” training with Kettle Bells, Skips, Light Plyos, and Burpees
- Be your own body sensor and coach
- Don’t sit
- Eat real food
- Do not put pain into your body
- And pass it forward…we all continue to learn by teaching and sharing with others.
I follow the wisdom of Dr. Phil Maffetone who ran a nice profile too on all the stuff we are doing here to spark a healthy community and empower each individual to take ownership of their health.
…………………….. Race-Day Strategies ………………………….
As you enter the week prior to the race here are a few strategies to help you set your plan. The best analogy I can think of is this: if you have trained your body properly with the right mix of aerobic level training and some up tempo stuff in recent weeks, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon. Many of you have driven in a Prius and watched the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the dashboard. You do not perceive these shifts. Your engines (muscles) run on a mixture of gas (sugars) and electric (fats). Utilizing gas or electric power depends on the effort. This is why slow aerobic training is critical for marathon success, you build a massive electric (fat burning) engine.
You are starting the race with one gallon in the gas tank- assuming you have eaten a nice meal the night before with a light breakfast top off. If you race in all gas mode, your engines will run about 1.5 hours at a strong pace….then you are out of gas. If your effort is mostly electric you can run for hours, but not as swiftly.
With the correct effort you (1) will use the proper fuel mix and you will be efficient for duration of your event and (2) you can even do some topping off along the way. Too hard early you will sabotage the day by not only depleting the gas but also shunting all blood flow to working muscles, thereby not allowing the aid station top offs to assist.
Running utilizes about 1kcal/Kg/Km. So for a lean marathoner of 80 kg you need about 3360 kcals (80kg x 42 km) to make it. The gas is the glucose utilizing pathway. Even fully carbo loaded, your stored liver glycogen (300-500kcal), muscle glycogen (1000-1500kcal), and blood glucose (less than 20 kcal) don’t add up. Glucose is easy to access for ready energy but adds up to less than 2000kcal. The fat utilizing pathway is the electric. In marathons you must be in hybrid mode to make it. Hybrid is where your energy (ATP) is coming from both fuel sources. Conserving the gas and using electric early in the race is critical.
Many runners are in great “10k shape” (an all gas event), start their marathon in the all gas mode….and crash. Glycogen sparing strategy need not apply in races of less than an hour as long as you had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras, top end anaerobic fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. Glucose gives 36 ATP per molecule with a limited supply, fat 200-400 ATP per molecule and an unlimited supply. You must tap into the fat burning tank. Now you know how a bird can migrate 7000 miles without an aid station. It’s all about the pace.
Another key to teaching your body how to burn fat and to maximize aerobic development is to not eat before or during your long runs. If you are reading this for the first time before this week’s race then apply to your next marathon. Your body adapts to exposures and if sugar is constantly accessible it will not learn how to burn fat. You also want to convert your fast twitch fibers to make them as “red” (oxidative) as possible. Easy and moderate effort long runs of 2 hours in a fasted state will drain the slow twitch fibers (“red” fibers) of glycogen and force more capillarization of the fast twitch (mix “white”/”red”) fibers, making them more “red”. You are doing speed work by running slow with this method, making the powerful fast twitch fibers aerobic. Distance runners in events from 800 meters to marathons through generations have trained this way. This is part of the Lydiard method and validated by the life work of Dr. Stephen Siler. Only recently have we been convinced we need lots of sugar before and during long runs. Race day is different as you are going for performance, not creating adaptations. More on this later.
So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?
This is difficult because the body sense at this level (Aerobic Threshold) is not as profound as Lactate Threshold (or Anaerobic Threshold). A slight increase from your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid to all gas without you realizing it. The effects are felt miles later. Charging and surging early will tap your gas quickly. If you want to speed up early….DON’T. Relax and maintain comfortable effort, not always a specific speed. You should feel easy in the early stages, it is a marathon.
You must rehearse in training. I focus on relaxation and belly breathing. If I’m breathing one cycle to 5 steps, then I’m hybrid. If breathing faster, I’m using mostly glucose as fuel. Belly breathe- allow lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation as your powerful diaphragm contracts. You will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you. Many are rapid breathing. They will suffer somewhere past half way. Practice nasal breathing, it forces belly breathing and prevents you from running in too high a gear. Nasal breathing also allows CO2 to rise naturally to assist in offloading the oxygen to the tissues. Blowing off CO2 binds the oxygen to the hemoglobin, inhibiting offload to the tissues. I used a product called a Nasal Turbine at the 2016 Boston Marathon and it helped the nasal breathing.
Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down- eyes, jaw, shoulders. Allow your legs to relax and extend behind you. Maintain correct posture and rhythm. Your core is solid and your legs are the springs. Find you own cues for this. If you use a Heart Rate Monitor in training strongly consider one during the event.
In a marathon, the last 3-4 miles you will be mostly gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in and heart rate rises. The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 steps per breath cycle- that is OK. Still stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form.
Land softly, especially on the early downhills. Focus on good form. Land soft and springy with good “impact moderating behavior” harnessing elastic recoil. Gently landing on and rolling from the heel can work as can midfoot/forefoot. Mix it up. Do not overstride with fully extended leg. Focus on posture and hip extension. Your trunk will lean forward slightly. Think “face forward” and look ahead. Run over the ground not into the ground. I’m never sore after marathons now
With good form it is “No pain…thank you”. Find a nice rhythm. Races are filled with excitement and distractions. For you there are no distractions, just peace in the moment. You get it now- the art of a marathon is to relax and be in the moment.
Now for a little on the most important organ for running- your brain. Your brain is the captain of the ship and will always try to protect you. Even at “all on” we are only really using 50-60% of our capacity. The brain likes homeostasis and running 26 miles is counter to this. Assuming you are medically healthy you can play some tricks to outwit your brain which is constantly telling you to slow down or stop. Work around the bad patches with your mind and find a better mental place. You are not “done”. Shift your stride, take a little sugar, run mile to mile, sing a song, relax and slow the breathing. You want to be “parasympathetic”. This is happy land. If your brain tells you the body is in peril, “sympathetic” stress kicks in. This is good for running from a wild animal (a sprint), but not for persistence hunting ( a marathon) .
Your shoes matter too. Make strong consideration to not running in minimalist racers unless you have trained substantially in them and adapted your structure to less foot support and a natural style gait. I advocate gradually adapting all of your training into more minimal and level shoes. When you learn to relax your lower legs and load the springy tendons in your feet and lower legs- the firm, light, and flexible shoes with no heel elevation put you in perfect position to allow natural elastic recoil of plantar fascia, Achilles and lower leg tendons, and hip flexors. New research and runner’s experience is now making the case for running with a focus on form and questions modern running footwear. The evolving world of modern sports medicine is going back to the future too and rediscovering what evolution has taught us. For more on footwear visit Dr. Mark’s Running School on upper right of home page of Two Rivers Treads ( http://www.tworiverstreads.com ).The recent ACSM guidelines are also a great read on footwear.
Have a course specific plan for your race. This is pretty simple as the course is mostly flat. Relax and warm up on the first uphill in Arlington. The early downhill out of Arlington is fun but if run too hard it can damage your quads….go smooth and easy down the hill. Allow gravity assist you down. Do not overstride and heel hit on the down hills- remember run over the ground not into the ground.
Find your rhythm on the scenic and mostly flat Rock Creek Park section miles 4-8. Revel in the fact that you are not climbing out of Georgetown and around Reservoir as in past years. Do not take the bait and get too excited by the Georgetown crowds. Find a nice rhythm on the peaceful stretch around Hains Point and make sure to get fuel and fluids as rehearsed. This is my favorite part of the race. There are no distractions. Relax head to toe and make sure you are belly breathing. The Blue Mile is along this stretch (Mile 12). Any discomfort you may feel is reduced as you view the pictures of the fallen soldiers and family members holding the flags. Relax and enjoy the tour through the Mall.
Save energy for the 14th St. Bridge, this is where things can get tough- 2 miles of lonely cement and often into the wind. A wonderful feeling is exiting the Bridge and entering Crystal City. This part will be 2 miles earlier this year. So to me that is good as once you are over this bridge you are heading for home. Plus is allows more runners to “beat the bridge”.
Save energy for the later stages of the race, this is where things can get tough. Remember, if you feel really good in the early stages and feel like you want to speed up….DON’T. It is a marathon and you should feel good in the early miles. Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”. Now a few extra ways to get from start to finish quicker on the same gallon.
The Final Climb to Iwo Jima Mile 26
- Do not sabotage your event by having a large carbohydrate heavy breakfast the morning of the race. This will increase your insulin levels and lock out the ability to burn fat. Fill your glycogen stores by not running and eating adequate amounts of healthy carbohydrates the 3 days prior. Make sure to get fat and protein too. Do not overload, you can only store a specific amount. A light breakfast of mix carb/fat/protein is a good thing as well as your morning coffee if you are a coffee drinker. Personally I am insulin resistant with age so do not carbo load and prefer the slow release super starch UCAN the morning of events and on courses where I can leave a bottle or two. I have adapted to using primarily fat as fuel and want to do this during the race.
- If you can add a little gas along the way this helps both glucose and fat burning. Adding just a little is best. If running too fast or if is temperature high you shunt blood to working muscles and to the skin to cool and the blood diverts from the gut, so nothing digests. Plus you are burning quickly through the glucose/gas. If you are in hybrid in the early going you can continually add some fuel. So the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace. Just a little sugar every 30 minutes is easy to digest and can help keep you fat burning till the final miles. Drink mostly water instead of the energy drinks which are often less predictable on the run and can spike your insulin and sugar excessively.
- The early downhills are fun but if run too hard can drain your gas quickly and damage your quads. Go smooth and easy down them. Allow gravity assist you down. Do not overstride with hard heel hit on the down hills.
- Maintain effort on uphills. Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort increases. Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms. Relax and recover on the downs. Save something for this section of the race!
- If you are having a “bad patch” – try to refocus on relaxing, fuel a bit (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom), and have faith in your training and race plan. Another nice trick is when you hit mile 21 it is not 5 miles to go, it is 4 and change. Mile 22 is 3 and change to go. Just run to the next mile marker and count them down one by one. Smile and enjoy the crowds.
- If it is windy get behind a group. This can save lots of physical and mental energy.
- Do not over drink water. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. The AMAA homepage has a link on the current guidelines in the lower right of page http://www.amaasportsmed.org/
- If it is going to be hot read this article I wrote after the steamy 2012 Boston Marathon which was published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal
- A final tip from 4 time Olympic Trials qualifier Josh Cox who spoke with me before the Air Force Marathon a few years ago. The night before the race make “the invisible man”. Get everything you are going to wear/use the next day set up to put on in the morning. Scrambling to find your number, socks, favorite hat, gels or other item adds stress. Get the outfit laid out on the floor ready to wear, then get some sleep.
The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it. I’ve done over 100 marathons now (several Ultras too) with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years. We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. I’ve learned a few things in over 35 years on how to train and race efficiently and economically in the marathon, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up. I learn something new every time. So relax, taper up, and seize the day.
I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces Members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make the Marine Corps Marathon a celebration. Run a fearless race and may the wind be at your back .
Good luck to all of you and see you at the start and the finish!
Here is a picture that will make any American Proud
Isaac Coltrin of Shepherdstown Middle School in the last 100 meters of the WV Middle School Cross Country Championships
The National Anthem was playing in a joining field and he knew what to do