The thing about marathon training is that there are no guarantees. You can complete all the workouts on your training schedule, eat well, cross-train, plan every detail of your trip to the start line and things can still go wrong. You can catch flu, fall and break your leg, get buried by work projects or have a car accident en route. And that's just the obvious stuff.
Maybe you picked a training plan that was too ambitious given your current level of fitness. Or you picked on that wasn't ambitious enough. Or maybe those shoes you thought were perfect in the store make your feet cramp after 20k. Or maybe you chose the wrong outfit for the weather. Or maybe your luggage didn't arrive and you have to buy new shoes and running clothes at the last minute. Or maybe that old injury you thought was healed flares up again 37k into the race. It's crazy-making thinking of all the things that can go wrong when you've invested so much time and energy in training for a race.
I thought I'd have my anxiety under control this time around. After all, nothing about marathon training is new to me. This is the 10th time I've done it and I've experienced pretty much everything before - the long slow weekend runs, tough tempo workouts, gut-churning hill repeats, the careful orchestration of work and social commitments to make time to prepare for and recover from each workout, weather and travel challenges. So, with just five weeks to go, why do I feel so stressed?
In the first place, because it's been more than two years since I last trained for a marathon and it turns out I'd forgotten how hard it is. Or maybe it just feels harder because I'm that much older. Whatever the reason, I'm finding it tough to stick to my plan. A big part of me wants to forget it and run a half marathon instead - or skip Calgary all together. I'm tired of having sore legs, tired of having to pay such close attention to my diet and sleep schedule, and tired of feeling tired all the time. I just want it over already.
Second, I'm not certain the training's paying off. Sure, I've finished almost all my planned workouts, but it doesn't seem like I'm getting much stronger or faster. Yesterday, I did a 31k run - my third 30-ish km run in four weeks - and it felt every bit as hard as the previous two. Shouldn't my legs feel more comfortable running that distance by now? How in the hell am I going to run 42.2k in five weeks' time when 31k felt so hard yesterday? Even after a good night's sleep, running another 9k this morning felt brutal.
Third, I'm beginning to think the new shoes I bought a few weeks ago aren't going to work for me. I'm still breaking them in so it's hard to know for sure but it seems they may be causing my right foot cramp up. I hope I'm wrong. Time is running out to find new ones and get them nicely broken in before the race.
Finally, I'm anxious about running at altitude in temperatures I'm not used to. Calgary is 1000 metres above sea level and it's been unseasonably warm in recent weeks. If that trend continues, I'm in deep trouble. I've been overdressing for my runs in an effort to acclimatize to running in the heat but it's not the same and I know it.
So, here I am five weeks out and I'm a basket case. Last night, I woke up around 3:00 am, my legs sore and achy from my long run, mind spinning through all the stuff I need to do before I head west, and all I wanted was to give up on the whole idea and stay home. Never mind the hundreds of hours I've devoted to training. Never mind disappointing friends and family I planned to visit. Never mind the cost of cancelling my ticket and forfeiting my race registration. Never mind giving up my goal of completing 10 marathons before my 55th birthday. Fear and doubt overwhelmed me. "Sorry", I thought, "but I'm just too old, tired and scared for this."
As I sit by the fire tonight, thinking about the last few weeks of training and considering my options, the situation appears less grim. It's true that my long runs feel hard. They're supposed to. That's the point. To teach my body to run even when it's tired and hurting. The fact is I have gotten stronger over the past few months. This week I noted that my 8k midweek run is starting to feel relatively easy - certainly much easier than it did three months ago! - and hill repeats feel more satisfying than exhausting - signs that the hard work is starting to pay off.
For now, I need to relax, and stick to the program. With a few more weeks of intense training, my body should be ready to go the distance (albeit slowly), and I'll have plenty of time during my taper to sort out logistical details and come up with strategies for dealing with things that can go wrong before and during the race. I just have to trust in the training, and do what I can to arrive at the start line healthy and uninjured.
What about you? How do you know when your training is paying off? How do you manage fear and doubt in the weeks leading up to a goal race? What do you worry about most as race day approaches? How do you prepare mentally for a long race?
Happy running and writing, friends!