Sunday, October 11, 2009

Slices of Big Apple

The moment of truth is on the horizon. I was fortunate enough to be selected in the race lottery drawing. Now, The New York City Marathon is only three weeks away. Not exactly plenty of time. To be frank, I have mixed emotions. It's definitely going to be a thrilling experience, like Dubai was. I haven't been to NYC in more than seven years, so I'm in for a treat as I return to this extraordinary metropolis, the busiest "beehive" of all. The other side of the coin is the uncertainty that is lingering until then. You can never be sure if your preparation was good enough until you're actually taken to the test, you have to be in it to know it - plain and simple.

When I sign up for a marathon - this one being number three - I have a specific goal in mind. I have a competitive personality. For some people, it's enough to be part of it, to enjoy the experience. Undoubtedly, New York is the perfect choice for an experience of a lifetime. Others, including me, go for it with a time goal, with the intention to set a new personal record. That doesn't mean it's going to be less of a great ride. I enjoy the challenge, challenging myself. I find it interesting to see how far I can go in the marathon, what can a software engineer who hadn't been involved in any kind of sports before 2007 accomplish with determination and the right level of training?

Throughout the last three weeks, I had a chance to taste two slices of Big Apple. The Wachau Marathon 10k race represented one of the two test races that are part of my marathon build-up. Test races allow you to objectively determine your current status in training. Is the marathon goal realistic or does it have to be adjusted based on the test race outcome?
I'm not a particular fan of 10k's, race pace is usually only slightly slower than your 1k interval pace. You're in a constant struggle to maintain the target pace if you go for the maximum. As you move up to the half-marathon and marathon, the pace becomes more moderate, relatively "comfortable" for most of the race. I felt great in the last interval session before the race (3:54/3:46/3:53/3:52/3:55min/k). While I still have respect for anything near 4:00min/k, I find it much more manageable now.

With around 3 kilometers of warmup, including short sprints at race pace, I entered the race. My goal was to stay as close to 4:00min/k as possible. Unsurprisingly, that was relatively easy througout the first 2k but became considerable harder thereafter. In contrast to the Linz marathon build-up, the comfort faded with the 2k mark and never returned except for some short periods during the race. In that race (00:45:03 in April), the race pace of 4:30min/k was comfortable for around 8k, I even had enough reserves to accelerate during the last kilometer. Three week ago, the race was much more difficult. I completed the 10k in 00:41:59, which is a new personal record. The absolute maximum, I could not have gone further. A fast finish was impossible, I was glad to have completed the race. In retrospect, I think that I started out too fast and therefore suffered quite early and throughout the race. I had a goal in mind that was too ambitious, a goal that was beyond the required time for my marathon target. The race relentlessly reminded me of my current capabilities and, most importantly, provided me with a pretty accurate indicator for other distances. With an average pace of 4:11min/k, I'm still satisfied with the outcome. It's roughly in line with my marathon goal and, after all, a considerable improvement (00:03:04) over the last PR after only 6 months.

Last week was even more crucial. I particiated in the Bad Ischl Kaiserlauf, a half-marathon. Unfortunately, I was not up to my game due to a cold I had developed some days before the event. It was a difficult decision, but I eventually decided to take part while not pushing for the maximum. The higher than usual heart rate indicated that there was no way to go for the required goal pace. Instead, I settled for running solely pulse-guided, without monitoring the pace. Despite my handicap, I felt surprisingly good all the way to the finish line, I even managed to accelerate in the last 4 kilometers and sprint to the finish to complete the half in less than 1:35, the result was 1:34:26, a new PR (01:40:50 in April; -00:06:24). I many ways, this was the best and worst race of my life. I was forced to hold back to be on the safe side, yet I've never experienced a more comfortable half-marathon race. So, all I take away from Bad Ischl is confidence. A half has never been that easy and enjoyable for me. Plus, I learned that running pulse-guided can lead to unexpectedly good results because you never exceed heart rate thresholds while trying to maintain a specific pace - instead, you account for the course and your current condition and automatically run at optimal pace for the current cardiovascular effort. In perfect condition, 1:32 should have been possible, I guess. Of course, I won't repeat the test race to find out. I walk away knowing that I would have had the capacity to finish faster and run a longer distance.

In any case, this is not the time to rest - yet. NYC is coming, a mere three weeks remain! With 1,032k worth of training in the pocket, I will now head out for the last major long run before entering long run taper mode and reducing the mileage total after next week. I am not yet where I need to be but I'm confident that the final sharpening period will enable me to aim for a precision landing on November 1st.