The Road to My BQ was Paved with Unsexy Miles

There’s quite a bit of interest in the training leading to my big breakthrough race at CIM. Honestly though, my training was pretty boring. And I’m not calling it boring as a negative. Quite the opposite, I think that’s what was KEY to the breakthrough.

Thanks to social media, especially on Strava, it’s quite easy to see what type of workouts and training runners are doing. I’ve noticed on Strava that kudos are most likely given to when you 1) run long, 2) run fast, or 3) do both. I don’t get many kudos for short slow runs, which I’m now calling unsexy miles. Those unsexy miles were the bread and butter of the third marathon training cycle (I’m broadly defining the training cycle as the start of coaching to CIM, although I didn’t commit to doing a marathon until late Aug/early Sept).

Dr. Jack Daniels is known for the formulation of VDot, which is an estimation of VO2 max. Briefly, Daniels thought that VDot was a good measure of a runner’s fitness and the paces of different training runs should be determined by one’s current level of fitness. (If you’d like to learn more, you can read this excellent synopsis by Fellnr, see this 15-min video, or read Daniels’ book, Running Formula. If you want to calculate your VDot score, you can use this VDot calculator.) The training paces I ran were determined by the VDot score that got adjusted as my fitness increased, which was demonstrated by faster race times.

When Leah first began coaching me in May, I had no real plans to run a marathon. I knew I wanted to run a sub-1:45 half, but beyond that, I didn’t know. I still had some residual burn out, so I wasn’t ready to commit to anything larger. Leah and I didn’t even discuss where and when we would do my goal half. After looking over my training and race history, she promptly told me that we were going to focus the next two months on building an aerobic base.

It’s all about that base.

I never really had much of an aerobic base before starting any training. For one thing, I hate running slow. I hate long slow runs because that’s just a lot of slow running. I wasn’t looking forward to base building. Leah even warned me that I will not see any improvement and may ***even get slower*** until we set the foundation. She reiterated that I had to trust the process and that this will pay dividends in the future. My mantra while sweating a sad slow loop in Prospect Park was, “I’m investing in slow now for fast in the future.” I spent a lot of time wondering if this was going to be all worth it. I had a lot of (irrational) self-doubt, but I always talked myself out of it by reminding myself that I was not a special unique snowflake where the laws of training do not pertain to me. If they work for everyone else, they will work for me too. I reminded myself of Judy, how she followed Leah and now she’s the runner I want to be.

The first 10 weeks varied in weekly mileage from 22-38 miles, with an average of 30 miles per week. I ran five days a week and had two full rest days. For any given week, sometimes I had a short workout or a race that serves as a workout (I love using races as training runs) and a long run of 10-13 miles. There were also weeks where I had no workouts at all. Many of my runs were between 3-7 miles between 9:30-10:30 pace. I also completed 20-sec sprints at the ends of many (but not all) runs. The workouts were variations of interval training, but all fairly short, either running at a particular pace for a few minutes at a time or running only a couple of sets based on longer distance. I did not find any workouts during this time to be a challenge or even all that hard. I just didn’t like doing them in heat and humidity.

The next month and a half were a build up to the 18.12 Challenge in Watertown. (By the way, these blocks of training, aside from what Leah said about a two-month base building period, are how I’m dividing up up the 7 months of coaching retrospectively. It’s not like Leah announced to me that I was entering a new training period or anything. For all I know, she might have had a different way of construing this.) During the build-up, I was traveling with my parents in Eastern Europe (or Central Europe if you ask the people of the countries we visited) for two weeks, which made training difficult. Leah worked with me by having mostly only shorter runs of various distances that I moved around depending on what I could fit that day. There were two long runs that I had to fit in so that I wasn’t going into an 18-mile race without sufficient long-distance endurance. For these weeks, including my travel weeks, the weekly average was just under 35 miles. There weren’t many workouts during this period, mostly because of travel. What I got out of this period was learning to be consistent with running. One of the things that Leah stressed to me early in our relationship that consistency was what was most important in improving as a runner.

I appreciated Leah’s responsive to my training notes. One of the things I vowed to make this coaching experience different (I’ve had other coaches before for other things) is that I was going to be 100% honest. In the past, I tried to be “brave” by not telling my coaches about niggles, or slight injuries, etc and do my training through the pain. I’m not going into a discussion here about which types of pain are okay to train through, but suffice to say because I wasn’t 100% truthful, my coaches were frustrated with the lack of progress. It wasn’t a good relationship and I bear some of the responsibility of that. So in my training notes, if I had something to complain about, I complained. I complained about the weather. I complained about feeling tired. I complained about having tired legs. Leah ignored my weather complaints (rightfully so, what could she do about it?), but she adjusted the weekly mileage and/or the training runs based on what I was saying. If I felt too tired, she shortened the next day’s run, or swapped the shorter run to the next day. I got cut back weeks in a timely manner so I didn’t feel like I was hanging on for dear life until I got a rest. One of my concerns was that as the mileage ramped up, I was going to get plantar fasciitis, which is something I’m prone to. I always ended marathon season with some bit of tenderness on the bottoms of my feet. I never had any foot tenderness in this training cycle because mileage increases and decreases were done in a way to respond to what my body was saying.

I went into the 2017 18.12 Challenge not sure what to expect out of my body, but without much pressure because I went in with a plan to treat it as a training run, not a race. When I ran the 18.12 Challenge in 2016, I had two months of marathon specific training (tempo runs, traditional interval training, many longer long runs). By this time around, I had four months of coaching, running a lot of unsexy miles and most weeks, I had a long run of 10-15 miles (a few weeks, I had no long runs at all) between 9:30-10:30 pace. There were even a handful of runs that were slower than an 11:00 pace because it was sooo hot and sticky. The weekly mileage was about the same for 2016 and 2017, but the paces were faster in 2016. How could I possibly expect to be faster in 2017?

I ran a six and a half minute PR. It was something I really didn’t expect. How could I run faster when I was training slower????? I realized consistency and having an aerobic base were the key differences. I was starting to believe in Dr. Jack Daniels. I stopped having conversations with myself where I was talking myself out of self-doubt in this training.

Leah and I had a discussion about what I was going to do.

“Do you think I can BQ?” I asked her.

“Yes, I absolutely do.”

I clarified, “I’m not interested in a marathon PR. It’s BQ or nothing. If I can’t BQ, then I don’t want to do this.”

“You can do this.”

Normally I’m a big fan of ABC goals (A goal, or Eagle if you’re Hilary thanks to her slight Southern accent, is your big scary fantastic goal where everything needs to line up correctly for it to come true, B goal, or Bagel per Hilary, is your more realistic more readily attainable goal where you need a good day and less reliant on luck but it’s still not a guarantee, and C goal, or Seagull per Hilary, is the either all shit has gone to hell and you’re just trying to salvage the day goal or the pretty much a done deal guaranteed goal) for races, but once in a while I need to throw out an all-or-nothing goal. It’s scary. It’s heartbreaking because there’s no margin for error. Success is narrowly defined by accomplishing the goal. There is no compromise. There is no silver lining. Disappointments and failures are all a part of what adults in the 80s used to call character-building experiences. If I was going to do this, I needed to commit all the way and not find solace in achieving something other than my one true goal.

Leah planned that I was going after my long-term chasing for two years goal of breaking 1:45 in a half on the way to the marathon. Again, I had a hard time believing this because in the prior two marathon cycles, I never got faster in the shorter distances. Leah was quite certain that I could do this by early Oct. I lined up the start of Wineglass terrified at the idea of running 8:00 miles for 13.1 miles. Again, most of the training runs in Sept before Wineglass were unsexy miles of 3-6 miles between 9:00-10:00, slightly faster now that the worst of the summer humidity and heat were gone, but still slow. Long runs were 12-16 miles, all quite slow.

I killed at Wineglass, slashing 3 mins off, running sub-8:00 miles. It was then, I was 100% a believer. It wasn’t that I was doubting Leah’s ability to coach, but more my inability to believe that what works for everyone else can work for me too.

After a couple of cutback weeks, my weekly mileage ramped up to a weekly average of 45 miles (35 miles to a peak week of 50 miles) and there was a two-week taper. A basic week consisted of a workout, a long run, and three easy runs. The midweek easy runs were now slightly longer, but still running them slow, mostly 9:00-9:30. I would be assigned sprints and surges to add at the end of ends or incorporate in the middle in order to keep my legs remembering what it was like to run fast. The workouts were longer now, mostly broken tempos. I did a few short races to race, rather than as a workout (set huge PRs in those too). I did ONE 20-miler. In the other two marathon cycles, I did 4-5 20-milers to prepare. I was going to CIM with only ONE 20-miler. I would have freaked out, but I reminded myself that I set massive PRs in every race that I’ve raced so far. I had gone into every race with my body prepared to RACE, not simply to run. No reason to believe that CIM would be any different.

I nailed CIM. As I kept telling people afterward, I had a plan and I executed it.

Usually when people have a big breakthrough in a race, they talk about how this particular training cycles had big scary workouts that challenged them, they didn’t think they could do it, but somehow they did and that gave them the confidence to go out and do the race of their lives. I never had that kind of epiphany. Leah did assign a few huge workouts, but when I looked at them, I knew I could do them. There was never a workout I thought, no way I could do this. I knew they would be hard, but I knew I could do them. I didn’t necessarily nail all of the workouts because the heat and humidity got the better of me, I had GI problems in one, or I was simply too fatigued to finish it the way she wanted me to at the end, but I would say more often than not, I did what she told me to do.

Instead my challenge was in being consistent and run the dang unsexy miles because that’s what I needed to do to build the engine to sustain me over the distance of 26.2 miles. I never missed a training run over the course of a week. If something happened to prevent me from running that day, then I made it a rest day and completed the run later in the week. I rarely shortened a run (I believe fewer than 10 runs over all these months). If they were shortened, it was always under 2 miles (usually just one), and I made up those missing miles later in the week.

I read somewhere (I wish I remembered where) that a coach knew his athlete was going to have a good race if his training log was mostly boring, meaning that it wasn’t filled with highs (an incredible magical breakthrough workout) or lows (poor runs). If the logs were filled with the latter, then something was wrong (either the workouts were too hard or the athlete was injured/sick). If the logs were filled with the former, then the coach suspected the athlete was lying about how well the workouts went. What the coach wanted to see were the words, “good” or “fine” after most runs. Just simple solid training.

I feel that’s what I had. As I looked over over my training log to write this post, most of the runs did not have anything exciting to say. Usually, I wrote “easy” because I was assigned to do a lot of slow unsexy miles. Most of my comments of feeling tired came earlier in the cycle as Leah was learning what I could handle and I was getting used to running higher mileage.

I trained for my BQ in a boring, unsexy way and it made all the difference to me.

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33 thoughts on “The Road to My BQ was Paved with Unsexy Miles

  1. I am all about the unsexy base plodding! So much of my summer marathon training was unsexy base miles at 10:00-11:00. (And then…derp…that’s when I realised I wasn’t following you on Strava.)

  2. I will rave to anyone who will listen about 1) taking a big chunk of time to build an aerobic base and 2) plain old boring consistency. Like if there’s some big secret, that’s most of it. I think I was kind of in the same spot as you when I finally decided to bite the bullet & spend six months wherein I went from running my “easy” runs at 8:15-8:45 to running them at closer to 11-11:30. I had all the same doubts (How is slow going to make me fast? Eek, I’m losing my speed!) but it 100% paid allll the dividends because it both grew my aerobic engine & also gave me the base I needed to run those longer, tougher workouts & high mileage weeks as I got closer to the marathon. Nice work!

  3. Ha, this reminded me of my thought earlier this summer about “Whoa, Lillian killed an 18M race; hmm, wonder if she’s running a marathon!”

    Interesting Strava kudos analysis re: unsexy miles. I run lots of those, but I’ve always thought I get more kudos for giving them some sort of title. I’m certainly less likely to kudos someone’s random, vague “Morning Run.” Also, you’re definitely not the only one who’s been resistant to slow training; I’ve often lamented not being able to run with X friends who race slower than I do because they train too fast for me to be able to keep up, because race pace in a nonrace setting is tough (for me, at least)! If only we were still neighbors so we could log some unsexy miles together!

    Lastly, I love Hilary’s version of the goal breakdown.

    • Yeah, catchy titles do get more kudos, but I’m too boring to think of one. Unnie is actually good at coming up with fun titles.

      re: Hilary
      LOL, she has a story of how eagles, bagels, and seagulls came to be.

  4. I AM DYING to see my accent in print with all of those great animals. Congrats again on your eagle. I also had a slower marathon training cycle (thanks Virtual Trainer for calculating that) but with a much faster marathon. Feels good.

  5. We were similar paced runners for a little while, a couple of years ago (you always slightly ahead), but now you really have gone on to a new level. And this piece gives a lot of food for thought! Congratulations on the sub 1:45, and massive congratulations on the BQ. And thanks for sharing!! Now enjoy the wee break before the next incredibly exciting training cycle!

    • Thanks, Kathryn! It’s an incredible shot of confidence to have such a big improvement because I thought I was in the stage of running where I would see smaller improvements in the future. It’s all rather nice because it means I have so much farther to go as a runner and “the peak” isn’t around the corner. I’m enjoying my break and getting extra puppy cuddles in.

  6. Love this post. So many runners don’t trust the slower training and base building. I really like how you pointed out that you needed to trust the process and that you are not unlike other runners. That is a great way to put it. It is super hard to trust that though!

  7. You’ve given a lot of us runners some things to think about, I think. I’ve heard of Dr. Jack Daniels but haven’t really put much time into researching plans using his strategies. I will now, though. Thanks for such a detailed, thorough post.

    • It’s nice to hear that you find it useful. My running club friends used his customized training plans that you can buy through Run SMART Project (cheaper than a coach) and many of them PR’ed in NYC Marathon.

  8. I love this. I learned so much from Hanson’s where 50+% are all unsexy miles. So many drone on and one about how hard it is to run slow and that slow is boring but it was those slow, boring runs that contributed to me getting faster, like you said. It built consistency and aerobic strength and when it was time to run hard, I had the energy to run hard. I totally think that’s where most runners fail is that they want to run hard ALL the time. Fastest way to burning out…..

    You’ve inspired me so much!!! I *will* see you in Boston!!!

    • I still love Run Less, Run Faster and still think it’s a great plan if you’re committed to running only three days a week. But it was clear that I didn’t have the base to advance on RLRF, so I had to switch. I learned a lot this training cycle. Not pooping out at the end of a race was new to me this year. I think I like it.

  9. So interesting! I really enjoyed this post. I’m trying to improve as much as I can lately and have thought about getting a coach myself. Interesting that your “base” is almost exactly what I already do from week to week. I’m going to read up on all the links you provided. 🙂

  10. Yes to all of this!!!! My triathlon coach does the same for me, and I do the same for my athletes. Slower miles equals faster races. Remember, every day is not a race 🙂 Happy running!

      • Yup! I have the same problem, which is why I have a coach to tell me when to back off. I saw that you trained for 7 months to BQ, and you’ve inspired me to attempt a BQ (I’ve run 5 marathons). Next year, I’ll be doing a full Ironman in Chattanooga, but in 2019, I’ll focus on the marathon and a BQ because I can’t do everything at the same time or race every single day. If that doesn’t work, I’ll wait until I age up again and try once more at 45!

  11. My mantras during my BQ marathon were similar – ‘no magic tricks’ and ‘don’t be a hero.’ It’s so hard to keep to the plan when you’re feeling so great during those early miles. Way to go!

  12. Couple interesting links about slow/base running:
    http://content.bandzoogle.com/users/cippianhotmail/files/Want_Speed_Slow_Down_2007.pdf
    https://www.angio.net/personal/run/hadd.pdf
    I kind of got into this concept myself last year, after many years of following FIRST (aka “run fast all the time”) program.
    My only disagreement with Maffetone is his 180-age formula. As all HR-based rules, it depends on the individual. At the very least, it should be based on % of MaxHR. Probably even better just to run “by the feel”.

    • Thanks, Ilya, for the links. I’ll be reading them. I have friends who do MAF training and swear by it. They do get faster, but I see how long they run on Strava and frankly I don’t want to run that much.

  13. Pingback: Reassessing | Running Tangents

  14. Pingback: If I was being interviewed by Ali on the Run… – The Chronicles of Runningshire

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