What’s Wrong With Hermitic Training?

This year I trained almost exclusively on my own for the Boston Marathon: no club run, no competitive races and no one but myself on the long runs. It wasn’t by design but the result of a litany of excuses, including poor planning, working long hours, post-work appointments, sleeping in and the flu. As the weeks passed, it became obvious my training was flawed. I decided to make it part of the game, as a test: Can I run a successful race after a mostly solitary training?

(Can you spot me training near St. Lichaa hermitage? Photo credit: Guillaume Piolle.).

Running a marathon is by definition an individual pursuit: You’ll be on your own the day of the race anyway, said my massage therapist, a former professional female triathlete who still completes Ironman events in under 11 hours. True, but on race day I’ll be surrounded by thousands of others who will inspire me to surpass myself. The same goes for training: running with better runners is the best way to get faster. That’s why I always urge fellow runners to incorporate races into training, ranging from 5Ks to half marathons.

Races are more fun than trying to run fast on your own, especially on a treadmill, a torture devicethat is essential to my weekday speed sessions during the winter. They are also a good opportunity to get used to prestart jitters, to hone strategies and to fail: It’s better to be disappointed by a training race than the race itself.
(Torture center with view, down in the basement.)

I kick-started the training for my past two Boston marathons with a 10 mile (16 km) race in Wilmington in January. The race, hilly and appropriately named “Icicle,” is a great gauge for evaluating where I stand in terms of pace and a chance to grab a little award for my age group — a morale booster. The race is about three months before the Boston Marathon so, even if I don’t perform well (I ran 2010 at a slower pace than my eventual marathon), I know I have plenty of time left to progress.

This year I missed the Icicle race because of the flu, which grounded me for 10 days. The only other race I’d scheduled was a local 5K fun run, which I incorporated in the middle of a 20-miler. My plan was to get out of my comfort zone on a distance I’m not very good at by trying to follow the leaders as long as I could. It panned out when the fast 20-somethings apparently stayed home on that snowy day. After about 500 meters I was alone in front and stayed there for the rest of the distance.
Small local races can be very fast or very slow, depending on who shows up. I could have run a few more since. But I didn’t: There was always an excuse.
Back in 2010, I wrote how running with the Delco RoadRunners Club helped me get back to running after a long illness and win my first award in a New York City half-marathon. Two months later, I ran the Boston Marathon in 3h01m43, a personal record at the time. There’s a lesson here: Camaraderie makes you run faster. I see it as almost vital during training: talking about running gets some of the steam off my obsessive-compulsive mind.
It’s good to be able to share stories that would bore non-runners to death. Most runners are over-sharers: we love to talk about our pace, injuries, pains, training strategies, types of shoes/socks, chafing and bowel movements. We have no shame. This year, I was unable to join my club on weekdays. I kept my insecurities about my training flaws mostly to myself. My husband has suffered the collateral damage of my lack of socializing with other workers. I try not to burden him with tedious tales of my runs, but I often can’t help. Before he can utter the question “How was your run, honey,?” he usually already knows my pace, whether I’m happy about it, which muscles hurt and a few other details. 
I keep going back to my training log for the 2011 New York Marathon, the only time I finished under 3 hours. I check my pace and weekly mileage and inevitably find that my current training is inadequate for a repeat. But I like one entry: a half-marathon on Oct. 15, 2011. I ran it in a disappointing 1h30. Four weeks later, in New York, I ran the first half of the marathon in 1h27 and finished in 2h59m18. When I feel bad about my training, that log entry is like a chocolate bar.
With four weeks left before the race, I can’t undo the wrongs. I continue to doggedly, solitarily follow my training plan. My speedwork has consisted of uninspired sessions on my basement’s treadmill. I feel like I butchered them. I was often so tired after a day of work (I’m at my desk at 6:40 a.m., so no time for exercising before work) that I postponed those sessions day after day, until there was only Saturday left to do them. It is another quirk in my training this year: I would not recommend speedwork and tempo runs the day before a long run (which I usually do on Sundays). Those sessions belong to midweek.

Perhaps I got a few things right. I ran my long runs faster than I used to. They’re no longer 20 milers. They are 20 one-milers, and in each I try keep a steady pace. My last long run of 21 miles averaged 7:04 a mile, which is “only” 12 seconds slower than the pace I would need to finish in 2h59m59. It restored some of my confidence. Not a lot.
Next Sunday will be the end of my hermitic experience: I’ll be running a half-marathon in Wilmington with my club. The course — downhill followed long uphill — makes it a mini version of Boston’s. I always use it as a dress rehearsal, perfectly timed four weeks before the race. This year it will be a public test of my private training. 

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