Stephen's Blog

Stephen’s Marathon Journey, Part 3: The Taper

Note: This is part 2 of a four-part series on running a marathon by frequent guest and friend of the show, Stephen Stephano. In this series he will detail his real-life experiences in running ten marathons, and he will give a four-step process on how to run one yourself.

Hello again everybody.  For those of you who are just joining us, this is part 3 of my 4-part series documenting my training to run the marathon coming up this Saturday in Richmond, Virginia.  Part 1 covered The Buildup, which was a period of general health and fitness over the summer months, while Part 2 detailed The Peak, a period of progressive training leading to peak fitness.  I reached this peak in the first week of November, cranking out a 15-mile run on the 1st and running a hard 10k at race pace on the 6th. The next day began the third phase, which I refer to as The Taper.

The Taper is a period of time that many runners either love or hate.  It is a period that was hatched by science. In the earliest days of marathoning, the runners were essentially guinea pigs or lab rats as far as how best to approach race day.  In those days, most runners trained hard through race day, thinking that having peak fitness was paramount. But nowadays, almost all runners precede their long distance races with a period of shorter runs and increased rest.  The idea is to allow your battered leg muscles a chance to recover from the most difficult workouts in the peak and to heal up any nagging injuries prior to race day. Physiologically, it takes anywhere from a week to two weeks for this to occur.  The general rule of thumb is that your biggest week of training should be either your 4th last or 3rd last week prior to the race. In the penultimate week, your total miles run should be down about 30-35% from the prior week, and in the final week, your total miles should be down by about 50%. 

I began drawing my own training back 9 days prior to the race.  On Friday the 8th I did a simple 5-mile slow jog. This was followed by an 8 mile run on Sunday the 10th.  This for all intents and purposes was my last run of any significance before the race. Almost as if to make it so, Mother Nature decided to throw an early winter storm at us on the 11th and 12th, making outdoor training next to impossible.  I decided to go onto the indoor track on the 12th, but my left knee and calf felt terrible, so I abandoned the workout early. I think the tight turns bothered me. On Thursday the 14th I’ll do my final workout before the race, a short 4-5 mile pre-competition jog followed by 6×100 fast strides.  That is a workout from my high school days I have done right before every competition, be it 5k, 10k, half marathon, or marathon. After that, all that remains is the drive through Appalachia on Friday the 15th, with go time the next morning.

I was never good at Physics, but one concept I can relate to quite well is inertia.  The concept states that a body that is not in motion wants to stay motionless, and a body in motion wants to stay in motion.  This is so true in physical fitness. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, starting a workout program is difficult and often painful in the beginning.  The reverse is also true and it manifests itself in the tapering phase. As I type this, I’ve only run 4 miles in the last 3 days and my legs are super edgy.  It’s almost as though I want to start bouncing off the walls I’m so full of pent-up energy. But that’s the idea. You want to have your muscles feeling better than they have in months and feeling super edgy.  If you feel this, then you’ve done the taper correctly. But it’s a moving target. If you wait too long, rest becomes rust and edginess turns to lethargy. Science says that most athletes can sit for about 5 days off in a row before they start to lose muscle mass and/or cardiovascular capacity, and at 10 days, the loss is about 5-10%.  Beyond that, the training loss becomes exponentially larger. This is precisely why I don’t start tapering until the 2nd to last week before the race.  

Once you get to the final few days, which I am in now, you start to plan race strategy and your final preparations.  The first thing to consider is the course. How difficult is it? Is it hilly or flat? Those are important considerations.  If a course is flat, you can generally run an even pace and get into a good rhythm. If the course has major climbs (and if there is, hopefully you’ve done some training on hills in the weeks leading up to the race) you may have to plan on taking the inclines slowly and then run more aggressively going back down the opposite side…or if your will is broken, to simply walk uphill and then resume running back down the hill.  In Richmond, the course has two moderate climbs, one at mile 10 and one at mile 12, and then has its most difficult climb at mile 17. The course reaches its highest point around mile 21, and then is all flat or downhill in the final 5 miles.

The second thing to consider is the weather, which is hugely important.  For Saturday, the weather will be far colder than average, with a low temperature of 36 degrees Friday night and a high of just 43 degrees Saturday.  This a far cry from my last marathon run in Detroit in 2017, where temperatures were hovering around 70 with high humidity and lots of wind. That day I was dumping water on myself at every water stop to stay cool and was primarily worried about heat stroke and dehydration.  This time I’ll be wearing a hoodie for the first time in a marathon and sweatpants for only the 2nd time after Indianapolis in 2015. I’ll have my hat and gloves too in case they are needed. Remember though, regardless of the conditions, you will want to wear clothes that you’ve trained in and feel comfortable in.  The race is going to be uncomfortable in the 2nd half, particularly once you get past 20 miles. The last thing you need are blisters or abrasion due to your clothes or shoes not fitting properly or being of the wrong material.

With the weather so chilly, I won’t be as worried about dehydration, but it’s still worth mentioning.  With this event scheduled to last 3-4 hours for me, that’s a lot of sweat even at colder temperatures. You’ll want to drink at least 32 oz of water in the 3 hours preceding the race, and then take at least 4-8 oz of fluid on the course any time there is a water stop.  Most major distance races have water stops about every 2 miles. The idea is that you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel thirsty, because if you do then you’re already dehydrated and you need to get a lot of fluids in you immediately or else you risk much worse.

Since almost all major distance races are contested in the morning hours, the best thing to do is to make sure you’re awake and moving at least 2-3 hours before the start time.  This will allow your body’s muscles to stretch out to normal length and get ready for competition. It doesn’t pay to eat a lot before the race, but getting a light breakfast with some carbs and some protein and/or potassium is a good idea.  Your blood sugar will likely drop as the race progresses and you’ll also lose electrolytes when you sweat. Most major distance races will offer sports drinks on the course and these do help. It also may help if you take some food with you onto the course.  Cereals, crackers, even dried fruits can provide you with essential nutrients that your body is using up. Powders and Gu jells can be utilized as well. Science shows that performance is enhanced by eating and/or getting electrolyte replacement beyond the 90 minute mark, which is why you’ll see elite athletes in major marathons and other events like the Tour de France cycling race eating or taking powder/jellies during competition.

The last thing to consider is pacing.  For a marathon, the distance is so long that you probably won’t be able to cover it without breaking stride unless you’re an elite athlete.  I have run 10 marathons and I have yet to accomplish this feat, the closest I’ve come is 21.9 miles in Akron in 2011. Therefore, there is no need to worry about running faster than your normal pace.  If anything, you should probably start slower than normal inside the first 2-3 miles. If you’ve tapered properly, your legs will feel great, and with all the noise and supporters cheering you on, it’s almost a given you’ll be running faster than you think you are.  I’ve fallen into this trap before, and believe me, if you start fast, you will pay for it big time on the back half of the course.

So this brings us to my last question: how do I expect to perform?  Well, as I said in part 2, my overall mileage and top distances this year haven’t been as good as past years.  That being said my pace is on par with other years. I think if I have good race strategy, I could really put a good race together up through about 18 miles.  Once you cross 18 miles, or definitely 20 miles, pretty much all strategy goes out the window and it’s simply a matter of how much energy and how much courage you have left.  I know my legs, and possibly my back and neck too, will be killing me by that point. My hope is to reach 20 miles somewhere between 2:25:00 and 2:30:00. If I do that, I will be in contention to run as well as past years.  Anything under 2:25:00 would be a dream scenario as my personal best time of 3:13:38 would be within reach.  

This is it.  Nearly 3 months of preparation, lots of miles, sweat, and sacrifice has led to this point.  After a season of twists and turns and ups and downs, everything rides on a single race. This is distance running’s equivalent of the two best words in sports: Game 7.  This Saturday in Richmond, this will be my Game 7. Much like the Cavaliers of 2016, I’ll be on the road…and much like them, I’m there to win.  

Well I guess there’s only one thing left to do: win the whole f****** thing.  

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