Monday, June 20, 2011

Steve's BQ: My First Guest Post

My friend Steve after the 2006 God's Country Marathon in Pennsylvania.

In 2001 and 2002, I lived in Far East Russia teaching English in a small village as a Peace Corps volunteer. The experience was supposed to last another year, but it was cut short when the Russian government refused to renew the visas of most people in my group of volunteers. All that's left me of the experience now are vivid memories, some waning knowledge of the beautiful Russian language, a musty box of papers and photos...and some friends.

One of those friends is a guy named Steve. Steve could always be counted on to provide a sense of humor (sorely needed at times; serving in the Peace Corps is not easy) and good advice (when he and two other awesome friends visited me in my town at one point, he told me to buy a boom box; I had been hesitant to spend the money, but found that having access to my own music all the time really lifted my spirits).

When we all returned to the States, I didn't see Steve again until he came out for my wedding in 2005. And later that year I saw him again. You see, Steve is a runner. Coincidentally, we both ran the New York Marathon that year. Not coincidentally, we met up for a celebratory beer afterwards.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Steve ran two other marathons in quick succession after that. In February 2006, while back in Colorado Dan and I were beginning to contemplate trying to get pregnant, Steve qualified for Boston. He's now on a course to run 50 marathons in 50 states (here's a map of his progress on that goal). And, in a sweet reversal of roles, I contemplate Boston on a daily basis, while Steve and his wife are about to become parents.

Here in his own words is Steve's take on marathoning--it has everything: pain and suffering, advice, romance, and of course lots of running. A big thanks to him for working so hard on this post!


I click the bookmark for Terzah’s blog a few times a week because I’m fascinated by natural experiments. I am currently a doctoral student in political science. The science part enters when thinking about and measuring which variables influence the likelihood of a political action—a state passes bill X because of factors Y1 and Y2. Runners likewise focus on those variables that influence our X, our race times. An evil, evil man was right in dividing the world of variables into a set of three: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Marathon training plans comprise the known known variables. Each of these controllable Y variables—a better diet, increased miles, speed training, sound sleep—has proved correlated with faster race times. I’ve always wanted Runner’s World to bestow upon a random sampling of average runners all of the vestiges of elites’ training—dieticians, running coaches, the best equipment, massage therapists, and the designated free time to train—to see how much the environmental effects of nurture can close the advantage gap given some by nature. Terzah has thankfully decided to run a scaled-down version of this experiment on a sample size of one.

Runners have less control over the second set of variables, the unknown knowns. We can select marathons with differing field sizes and types of courses and terrain, but the race day weather is not a certainty. Runners of the 2007 Chicago Marathon had probably not trained for an 88 degree, high-humidity, late-October race day.

I give credit to the right alignment of variables in each of these two categories, but I believe one variable in the third set, the unknown unknowns, was responsible for my achieving a Boston Qualifying time at the 2006 Austin Marathon.

Why I (Still) Run
My reasons for continuing running have always centered on the personal. I usually do not train for or run marathons with others. A personal drive sustains my daily running. But the hallmarks of my running career—running my first marathon, getting hooked on running marathons, and qualifying to run the Boston Marathon—have come about in response to others.

I ran my first marathon in 2003. My brother asked me to run the Marine Corps Marathon with him so I could be there when he proposed to his girlfriend. I did, and he did, and she said yes. In spite of that happy occasion, my most enduring memory of that marathon finish is still the barely resistible urge to curl up on the soft lawn of the Iwo Jima Memorial and weep myself to sleep in the warm October sun. I was not hooked. But, a year later, again upon request from a friend, I ran the Chicago Marathon. Having this comparison data point was what hooked me; I needed to see the quantifiable measures of improvement that the race clock provides.

I immersed myself in data, literally running the numbers on my Garmin over the next year. But I soon realized that I did not love running these data, nor do I like to train. There are really only two parts of running marathons that I do enjoy: 1) signing up and 2) finishing. Everything that comes in between those two activities—training, eating better and drinking less beer, scheduling, etc.—aren’t really my thing. But they are prerequisites for the enjoyable parts of running.

To hardwire my brain to understand this connection, I created a reiterative incentive structure by committing to run a marathon in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This overarching goal has provided the opportunity to sign up for and finish a seemingly endless diversity of races and led to the following wonderful discovery: spacing marathons close enough together both reduces the time between the incentive payoffs of finishing a marathon and signing up for another and eliminates the need to follow the traditional, four-month marathon training regimen. I replaced the four-month training program with the following one-month plan (patent pending).

Week 1: You just ran a marathon. You deserve chicken wings, beer, and a week off.
Week 2: The marathon is in three weeks, better start training! Run 6 miles T Th and 10 on Sunday.
Week 3: Time to taper to preserve glucose blah blah etc. Run 6 miles T Th and 8 Sunday.
Week 4: Don’t want to overdo it. Run 6 miles on T, and a marathon on Sunday.
Rinse and repeat.

Steve in action last month at the Brookings, SD, Marathon.

Most importantly, my race times improved from less training. Following a four-month training plan in preparation for NYC in November 2005 I just missed a PR (3:24.45). I was eager to immediately sign up for another, but was cautious about integrating my new training plan. Two months of training after NYC yielded a PR (3:19.30) at Rock n’ Roll Arizona in January 2006. I proceeded with fully implementing my master marathon training plan, and one month later I was at the starting line of the Austin (TX) Marathon in February. My RnR Arizona finish put me within striking distance of the 3:10 BQ required for my age (29) and gender (M). But, despite being so close, I never really thought that I would cut the last 10 minutes to qualify, particularly since my only mimicry of elite training methods was inclusion of a weekly tempo run.

How I Qualified for Boston
I’ve now run 24 marathons, and I believe I can adequately assess some of the factors that portend success (or failure). Three factors enabled me to BQ at the 2006 Austin Marathon. First, the known known variable, was my training. My innovative (read: lazy) training program ensured that I was prepared, but not overtrained. I had none of the nagging injuries that can result from the traditional four-month marathon training program. The second factor, the unknown known, was the weather. Starting time temperature was 28 degrees, and I am a cold weather runner. The third reason was the unknown unknown factor, and I do not recommend it: I ran that race broken hearted.

I broke up with my long-term girlfriend a few days before the Austin Marathon, but in so doing I realized that she was The One. She, deservedly skeptical of my relationship-deathbed conversion, would not answer my calls. Panicked, I left her a voicemail asking her to meet at a local restaurant next Wednesday at 8pm if she was willing to try again, with the understanding that a no-show would end us. With no idea of whether she would show, and with five more days to mull over the possibilities, I welcomed the marathon’s physical pain as a distraction. I ran the first two-thirds of the race trying to achieve a trance-like state wherein I couldn’t think about the breakup by focusing on the act of running itself, of putting one foot in front of the other. It worked to the extent that I was shocked to be on pace for a BQ at mile 18. Then, as I used the physical pain of the first 18 miles to distract myself from myself, I used my emotional pain to distract from the marathon’s physical pain over the last third.

I do not prescribe a broken heart as a training tool, but I do recommend being prepared to take advantage of whatever conditions race day brings. Take care of your known knowns by finding and personalizing a training program that produces results. Control to your best extent the unknown knowns by picking a race that suits your climatic and course-related needs. Finally, prepare yourself to use as motivation any surprise unknown unknowns. Motivation can spring from the most surprising and even unwanted of places, and it is incumbent upon us to turn that motivation into accomplishment.

Oh, and, my wife gave me plenty of time to sweat it out, walking through the restaurant door that Wednesday night at 8:45.