Unfinished Business and Renaissance Duathlons / by Edmund Milly

I’ve spent more time and effort improving my endurance than most. And yet, despite the marathon’s status as a powerful symbol in my life - almost a mode of being - I’ve never actually finished racing a marathon without feeling utterly demoralized. In Hamburg (2010), Burlington (2011), and Long Island (2015), I crossed the finish line knowing that I’d missed the mark, that I was capable of a better performance than I’d managed to put out.

Demoralized, yet thirsty: when you miss your goal time, drown your sorrows immediately.

Demoralized, yet thirsty: when you miss your goal time, drown your sorrows immediately.

If I plug my 5K time into a race equivalency calculator, it always predicts a 10K time that’s just slightly faster than what I’ve done; if I plug in my 10K time, it gives me a half marathon that’s just out of reach; if I plug in my time for the half, it predicts a better marathon result than I’ve ever posted. This phenomenon strikes me as passing strange for a guy who traversed the world’s second largest country on foot - even kind of embarrassing. And if you count my best 5K time on a treadmill (17:44), it’s hands-down my best event. This is why the marathon still represents unfinished business to me: I can’t feel even remotely satisfied until I break 3 hours.

If only my best 5K really were an accurate predictor for these other race distances! (Plug in your own results at www.mcmillanrunning.com. The closer in distance your goal race and your predictor race, the more accurate it tends to be.)

If only my best 5K really were an accurate predictor for these other race distances! (Plug in your own results at www.mcmillanrunning.com. The closer in distance your goal race and your predictor race, the more accurate it tends to be.)

Is it possible that I’ve been chasing the wrong goals this whole time? Could I innately be some sort of fast-twitch-muscular guy intended for shorter distances, destined for mediocre marathons in spite of a personal obsession? A marathoner trapped in a miler’s body? What if I’m pathologically addicted to pain and failure? Maybe there is truth in some of these ideas, and I do intend to explore my potential as a fast 5K guy after October 17, but at this point, I pretty much consider breaking 3 hours in Baltimore a prerequisite to going forward.

It might seem strange, being so confident that I’ll be able to substantially improve my marathon PR only five months after a massive one (in May at Long Island, I lowered that PR from 3:45 to 3:08). But when I ran Long Island, I felt like the workouts and races I’d run in training indicated that I would be fit to run a sub-3-hour time. Accordingly, I think something(s) must have gone wrong on race day.

What caused every mile split from 16 on to be a little slower than the last? My pacing for the first half of the race was exemplary, given my goal time and the propensity to run positive splits that I was working against. I feel good about how I executed the hydration/fueling plan (in short: drink gatorade every time it is offered, starting early in the race. Sounds crude, but it’s better than I’ve done in the past). I feel good about my decisions not to listen to music (too much distraction from the breathing) or take caffeine (the risk of stomach trouble wasn’t worth it). From a nutrition standpoint, eating anything that wasn’t either free or a clif bar was often difficult in grad school, but in the months leading up to Long Island I did my best to teach my body to run on fat instead of glycogen, to soften the dreaded bonk. (Those efforts included a brutal, week-long, protein-sparing modified fast during which I ate only about 500 calories’ worth of pure protein every day and went for 8 or 9-mile runs.) When the bonk came, it was more gradual and less painful than it had been in Hamburg, but I bonked anyway.

Mile splits from the Long Island Marathon as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner. After fairly solid pacing for the first 16 miles, I started to fade.

Mile splits from the Long Island Marathon as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner. After fairly solid pacing for the first 16 miles, I started to fade.

Obviously, I couldn’t control the weather. After a winter of the same old bullshit every week, “Snowpocalypse” this and “Polar Vortex” that, my race day was by far the hottest, sunniest day of the year, with not a cloud in the sky or one tree’s shade to prevent my getting fried on the Wantagh Parkway, which comprises most of the Long Island course. I was probably overdressed, skimpy as my kit was, and that much I can control (winner Oz Pearlman went shirtless with a hat to provide a little shade / sweat collection -  sagacious choices).

I have considered the possibility that the long runs I did in training were not long enough. I embraced the Hansons’ method of never going for a continuous run of longer than 2 hours in training, and in practice, this meant I maxed out around 17 miles. Their argument is compelling, and Jack Daniels makes a similar one: that you stop gaining physiological adaptations from a run longer than 120 minutes (Daniels says 150), and that running more than 25% of your weekly mileage at a time puts you at risk of injury. ‘Do the workouts, run high mileage throughout the week, and the long run will be like the last 16 miles of the marathon instead of the first 16,’ they say. These are some of the top marathon coaches in the US, so I’ve tried to quell my skepticism, and I stuck with that protocol for this training cycle, but ramped up my weekly mileage considerably, starting at 60 and working up to 80, where I’ve stayed for weeks. Maybe at the end of the day, I just wasn’t able to put in the volume I needed to run a successful marathon in my last semester of grad school - if so, at least this summer’s been rock-solid by comparison.

Heart rate: the average for the race came out to 165, including a prolonged spike in the first couple miles, which is interesting. I had assumed that since Maffetone’s formula gave me a maximum aerobic HR of 158 (180 - age = 153, +5 for being injury-free and making progress), I should expect an average around 158 if I was going all-out in the marathon. But Larisa Dannis - another disciple of Maffetone who is my age and has a similar running background, just far more successful - says 165 is where she needs to be in the marathon. I’d like to ask her about this apparent contradiction; how can your HR indicate that you’re above aerobic threshold in a race distance that forbids it? Maybe what I didn’t take into consideration is the role that psychology can play on HR, because we get excited in races. Anyway, the point is that I felt like I was working precisely the right amount of hard. Breathing started out 3:3 and eventually switched to 2:2 sometime in the second half. I had never before felt so focused on the task at hand.

Author's heart rate during the Long Island Marathon, averaging 165 BPM with a big spike in the first couple miles.

Author's heart rate during the Long Island Marathon, averaging 165 BPM with a big spike in the first couple miles.

The ever-lucid Alex Hutchinson recently touched on perhaps the most compelling reason for my sub-par performance at the Long Island Marathon: mental stress. I did my best to lower my non-running-related stress during my taper, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about the fact that the week before the race was my last week of grad school classes. 11 hours before I toed the line at Long Island, I was standing in front of an orchestra on the stage of Alice Tully Hall singing Beethoven. Small detail. A few hours later I would wake up at 4:30 am and drive a car (something I never do) to Long Island, praying for a parking spot. Talk about cortisol levels! This was very far from an ideal race weekend scenario. Hutchinson says:

Book a prerace dinner reservation, figure out race-day logistics, and set aside a good book to read or movie to watch (but not War and Peace). Oh, and turn off your work email. You've invested a lot of effort to get your body in peak form, so make sure your mind is just as primed to compete.

“but not War and Peace”!? LOL. Now that is how I  actually relax. And turn off my work email!? Obviously, all of this is great advice, but I simply wasn’t in a position in life to follow it. Being in the voxtet is all-consuming, and it was kind of hilarious that I even attempted to run a marathon during that crunch time. If there is one factor that certainly lowered my race-day performance, it was this, that my marathon was not so much an event in itself as part of a larger event, like the marathon at the end of an Ironman triathlon.

In fact, I have a term for this phenomenon. A renaissance duathlon is any event which combines an athletic performance with a performance which is less strictly physical in nature. Most frequently, these occur in my life as a harder-than-average run coinciding with singing a concert. In grad school, I did my long runs on Saturdays, and often had to sing concerts a few hours after them, so I made up this term to describe the exhilarating and challenging sensation of working your mind and body at a high level.

It is not always obvious that performance in either leg suffers in a renaissance duathlon. Not unlike in an actual triathlon - where running speed is not as directly affected by having just swum as it might be by running a longer distance or, say, doing a hundred squats, because swimming and running use your muscles differently - running and singing use your body and mind in different enough ways that one does not always detrimentally affect the other. Perhaps on a good day they can even work together to produce a special result: I’m thinking of the memorized run-through of the Winterreise that I sang for Jimmy and Tom after an icy 18-mile training run, a performance during which I felt vocally strong and mentally focused. I also sang a concert with Northern Harmony immediately after my first marathon in Hamburg, and felt fairly chipper. But as a rule, the things that we do draw from finite bodily resources. If you do x and then y, it might not be your strongest y.

Here we run into a problem that is almost philosophical in nature: if performance always suffers from adjacent activities, how often and to what extent should we “do nothing” in the time adjacent to a performance? Wouldn’t your mind stagnate, your abilities plateau? Is doing nothing even possible for a busy young professional? I know a lot of singers who approach their performers with a greater degree of reverence, or perhaps in some cases superstition, than I do. By contrast, my strategy has been to maximize productivity and lower stress by treating performances (in music and athletics) as events that are necessarily limited in the amount of special treatment they can be given. No one can give 100% of their psychic and physical resources, 100% of the time. One might have to give 100% for a few special occasions a year, but most of the time, 80% will just have to be good enough. (And the beautiful thing is, if you’re really good at what you do, the difference between when you’re operating at 80% and 100% intensity will only be discernible to a select few. If you need to impress them, then maybe this is one of those few occasions per year.)

Suffice to say that I think I could have run a faster marathon than 3:08 if it had not been the final leg of a several days-long renaissance duathlon, and I’m going to do my best to make sure that Baltimore isn’t the same way for me.

Sum up a race experience with three things that you think you did well, and three things that you can improve on in the future. Here’s what I did well in May:

  1. Pacing

  2. Hydration / nutrition

  3. Breathing

And here’s where I can improve on 19 days from now, in Baltimore:

  1. Consistent mileage (check)

  2. Wear as little clothing as possible

  3. Lower mental stress during taper, particularly the day before the race