“Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” – Shakespeare, King Lear
On the final Sunday of March, three weeks and one day until the 122nd Boston Marathon, Commonwealth Ave. in Newton is teeming with runners logging what is probably their final really long effort before the big day. At this time of year I can’t help having mixed feelings: on the one hand, relief that I’m not out there terrified about what running 26.2 miles will do to my body; on the other hand, envy for the collective spirit of purpose shared by all these folks.
I can only speculate about what thoughts are going through the minds of these runners as April looms, but I expect most are very happy to have completed their longest long run and the toughest stretch of their training. I expect they’re looking forward to resting up for a few days, letting little aches and pains resolve, going through the final preparations for Patriot’s Day. But within a week, they’ll start getting antsy. With no more long runs on the schedule, they’ll have too much time to think, and what they’ll be thinking is that they need to DO something to improve their fitness or form. In short, they are about to experience that dangerous mix of excitement and anxiety that accompanies the shift from training to tapering.
I say “dangerous” because for some runners – the ones focused on leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of a faster time — the next few weeks are prime time for doing dumb, unnecessary things. At least, that’s what I used to do.
I understand that these days, many if not most of those runners out on Comm Ave are not chasing fast times. Instead, they’re in it to experience Boston, to participate in one of the world’s most famous running events. I expect that, for them, the focus of the next few weeks will be minimizing risks rather than maximizing speed. That sounds sensible to me, and I wish them the best. But I also know that there will always be a few runners who will be tempted by “good advice” designed to help them run a little better, endure a little longer.
For them, I offer this public service announcement: over the next three weeks, exercise caution when you hear about something that sounds like it would be good for you. The best thing for you is to avoid those good things, unless you’re doing them already.
Number one on the list of good things to avoid is advice in running magazines or running books on how to change your form. I know how easy it is, when you finally have the time and energy to think about what you’re doing, to pick up a book and read convincing arguments for doing all the little things that you’ve been neglecting this winter (and maybe forever): core strength, postural stability, neutral pelvis, functional hips, improved cadence, learning to “shoot from the glutes,” etc., etc. I have four words that should override all of these excellent suggestions: DON’T CHANGE A THING! Here are another four words: IT’S NOT WORTH IT, not now, anyway. Even a small experiment with a new exercise or technique can stress some crucial body part and screw up the familiar, if homely, form that you’ve practiced for the last many months or years.
Am I telling you this because I’m immune to this siren song of better form? Actually, I’m the most susceptible person I know. I’m embarrassed to admit that in just the last month, I’ve allowed three new running books to enter my house and installed a new running app on my phone. These are all excellent sources of information and suggestions for improving my running, making myself more resistant to injury, and so on. And every time I’ve taken their good advice and tried some new exercise, stretch, or practice, I’ve tweaked something that left me sore for days. Fortunately, I’m not running the marathon, so there’s a much lower price to pay for being stupid, or even being smart at the wrong time. But for those of you getting ready for the big race, this is not the time to experiment.
Likewise, this is the absolute worst time to introduce a new training stimulus. Maybe you haven’t done a lot (or any) speed work this winter. Maybe, in spite of knowing that the Boston course has all those hills, you’ve been running exclusively on pancake-flat routes along the river, or logging your miles on treadmills. So now you think that because you don’t have to get in those two-hour runs every Sunday, you ought to hit the hills, or sashay down to your local track and knock out some 400s, or attempt some weird interval workout that you found on the Internet. Please, don’t do it, I’m begging you. It’s too late. It won’t help, and it might hurt. Read a book, instead.
Speaking of which, now is precisely the time to read a good, thick book. If you’re old enough to know what a public library is and how to use it, go there now, and borrow a couple of volumes of engaging, but not-too-challenging literature. If a library seems hopelessly old-fashioned, then download something to your Kindle. I don’t care; just find something to read other than running books. I happen to like classic mystery collections — The Complete Sherlock Holmes, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, or even Agatha Christie novels. If those seem too musty, then perhaps you would prefer contemporary fiction, or biographies, or the science writing of Stephen Jay Gould, or the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse — anything, really, that keeps you home at night and takes your mind off running for a while.
But back to preparations and the importance of avoiding good advice: I hope that by now you’ve already worked out/decided the answer to the two most vexing questions for anyone about to run a marathon:
- What do I eat/drink before and during the race?
- What do I wear?
If you haven’t decided how to fuel and hydrate yourself by now, don’t ask me for tips. I have no idea what you should do. My only advice is to go with what’s familiar to you from all your long runs, and avoid what’s unfamiliar, even if you just read an article that said such-and-such food or drink or gel was the key to busting out a great marathon. When it comes to food and fueling, trust your gut. Literally.
And as for gear, let’s start with your shoes: I hope you’re not about to buy new, lightweight shoes for the marathon. I hope you haven’t been reading about the Nike Vaporfly, and the energy cost of extra ounces over 26.2 miles. Forget all that stuff, and dance with the ones that brought you. Wear shoes that are boring and familiar. Same thing with socks. Same strategy for everything else you wear: choose clothes that you trust for your training, and that make you feel good. You know about chafing, right? Take precautions. You know about plastic bags, right? If the forecast calls for rain, bring a plastic bag that might (or might not) keep you a little dryer before the race. You know how to gear up, and yeah, it will be probably be warmer on April 16, but you’ll know what to do if it is.
And there you have it. An entire blog post of advice telling you to ignore blog posts like this one offering advice. A thousand words that could have been boiled down to a simple formula that covers 90% of what you need to have a decent experience on Patriot’s Day:
Trust your training!