Not Rocket Science

Training your body and mind for a marathon is akin to getting a space shuttle ready for a launch. It takes months and requires thankless hours of preparation to make sure all the pieces will work as required, whether they are muscles and joints, or computer programs, screws and bolts. I am now 11 days away from the Boston Marathon: the rocket is on the launching pad and there’s nothing I can do now to improve my performance on race day. I know anything can happen on April 19, and like an astronaut, I’m hoping for good weather.
The comparison stops there. Among the bad things that can happen to me on race day are getting a cold, losing a toenail, cramping, finishing in a disappointing time or, worst of worst, getting the dreaded “DNF,” for “did not finish.” Unlike astronauts, I don’t risk blasting up into the air. Also, I don’t need a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

(Trying to avoid twisting an ankle at the Tyler Arboretum trail race on March 27, three weeks before the marathon. Photo: John Greenstine.)

In a May 2008 post, I described what I call the “post-marathon blues,” the low runners feel in the days and weeks after a marathon; after months of hard training they find themselves with a lot of free time and without a goal.
There’s also a low in the two weeks before the race, when runners are tapering, i.e. cutting their weekly mileage. Picture the rodeo bull in the few minutes before the cowboys open the gates; or a Formula One car in the moments before the start; or the Discovery space shuttle a few seconds before its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 5. They’re ready to burst.

(Photo by Chuck Szmurlo. July 10, 2007)

Right now, I’m that rodeo bull. I conditioned my body, and my mind, to run for hours regardless of the weather conditions. I ran several 20-mile (32 km) training runs in snow and ice during one of the harshest winters on record in the U.S. Northeast, and one epic 22-mile one under pouring rain. Because it was dark out, I went to the gym at 5 a.m. or after work to do speedwork (typically one mile at a very fast pace, followed by half a mile of jogging, repeated at least three or four times). I pushed the treadmill to just under its maximum speed of 10 miles an hour and almost vomited at the end of some of the sessions. The long runs simulate the actual length of the race (26.2 miles, or 42.2 km) and trained my muscles to run for hours, while the short bursts of speed over a mile taught my legs to push beyond their limits — something I will no doubt ask them to do a lot on race day. In the last few hundred yards (or meters) of my miles at full speed on the treadmill, when I felt I couldn’t take it anymore, I visualized the final 500 meters before the Boston Marathon’s finish and went for it. The brain needs to be trained, too.
Now all I need to do is to cut my weekly mileage down to about 30 miles from a peak of about 55 miles, and go out for gentle 5 milers at marathon pace or less. You might as well ask the rodeo bull to slowly walk out of the gate and graze like a cow. Steam is pouring out of my nostrils as I write these words.

The Discovery Space Shuttle arrived at the International Space Station yesterday. The launch was a success. I’m always superstitious in the days before a marathon, so I’ll take this as a good omen.

( Source: NASA/Tony Gray, Tom Farrar)


  1. Another great column, Cecile! I can definitely see that “steam” shooting from your nostrils and I bet you will be jet-propelled on April 19th ! Don't forget to carbo-load the last two days. I hope the race day weather is favorable- maybe even a tail wind to push you along. I will definitely be tracking you, Noreen, Larry, and Kate on the computer during the race.
    Bon chance !


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