Gertrude Stein once famously said that the answer is there ain’t no answer. Recently the trainees in the Reebok Training Program for the SunTrust National Marathon, held in Washington, D.C., on March 29, had the benefit of having two premier marathoners speak to them about training. Stein’s truism came to mind while listening to these two elite athletes bestow their wisdom on the assembly of mostly-novice runners. What they both said boiled down to: Do what works for you.
The biggest marathon on the East Coast between New York City and Walt Disney World is the Marine Corps Marathon. Jim Hage, the first man to capture back-to-back MCM titles (in 1988 and 1989; his feat wasn’t duplicated until 2006), spoke first.
Hage told the group that there are no right answers in running and training, only different approaches and discovering what works for you. He advised seeking out more experienced runners, finding out what has worked for them and then applying it to your own training if it seems suitable for you.
He related how he felt confident that he would win at both the 1984 and 1985 MCMs, but came in third each time because, he said, he lacked drive at the end. What worked for him was to take some time off, reassess and then add more miles, going from 70 to 100 miles a week with double workouts on some days. In his next two MCMs, he summoned the energy at the end to win each time.
The rest of his comments were about continuity. Looking around at the assembled runners, he attributed their running to a lifestyle choice in favor of healthier living. Honoring our bodies, he termed it. But Hage stressed the importance of continuing on with this lifestyle choice even after the next big race was over. He cautioned against sinking into a post-race funk of inactivity and in a few short weeks losing all of the hard-won conditioning gained over long months of dedicated effort. Avoid having to start all over again when the next season comes along, he said. Two days after the race, go out for a jog, then take a longer run the next day. Resume training soon afterwards to eliminate the “yo-yo effect” of post-race weight gain and loss of conditioning.
The 2006 NYCM was the coming-out party for the next speaker, Samia Akbar. Sponsored by Reebok, Akbar was an All-American track star at American University. She debuted at the marathon in New York with a stunning 2:34:16, placing twelfth in an international field, the third American. Next up for her are the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April in Boston.
Akbar spoke about tapering for a big race, and said everyone’s notion of tapering is different. For her, she will do some long runs up until the week before the event, then do shorter runs of the same intensity. Even now, she is avoiding running on pavement as much as possible as the race approaches. Some runners like to inject shorter but speedier workouts near the race, but she doesn’t like to increase her speed in workouts as the race draws near due to lack of familiarity with the routine and fear of injury.
Akbar talked about the importance of staying hydrated the entire week before the race, and said she doesn’t drink water during a race, only the energy drink she normally uses. As we’ve all heard before, a race is not the place to alter your routine and try new things, she warned. She grabs her special bottle at every water stop, taking only a few sips at the start and drinking more of each bottle as the race progresses. Other racers start with water and move on to their energy drink later in the race.
Before the race, everyone’s routine is different, she said. Before New York she ate a big breakfast of pancakes, turkey sausage, juice and fruit, four hours before the race. For her warmup, she does both static stretches that she learned as a schoolgirl, like touching her toes and doing lunges, and more active exercises, like repetitions of 100 meter striders, that allow her to elevate her cardiovascular system pre-race. That is what she has found works for her.
Jim Hage was 44 in 2002 when he became the oldest man to ever win the JFK 50-Mile Race. He continues to amaze everyone. Samia Akbar, at age 26, probably has her best times ahead of her. Listen to what both of these runners have to say. Watch out for Hage in any race, and pay attention to what Akbar does at the trials next month.
Photo credit (Akbar): dirk.malorny