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home > community > viewpoint > diagnosis d_n_f.

Diagnosis D_N_F.
What is the script for pulling up at the 15 mile mark of a marathon when you’re 3+ minutes ahead of pace?

Diagnosis D_N_F.

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By Christopher Russell
Posted Monday, 25 February, 2008

It was a management decision. I thought about toughing it out and I probably would have made my time. I definitely would have qualified again. There is no doubt that I would have finished. But I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I already have my qualifying time for this year and there was nothing but pride riding on the race. It didn’t seem like a smart thing to do for pride alone.

It still gnaws at you. Nobody likes to quit. Ironically I’d probably feel better and more heroic dragging myself across the finish bloody and bruised in a great pyrrhic loss. I’d be telling stories of how courageous and tough I am. Spinning grisly yarns of hemorrhage and stagger. My favorite kind of story to tell about myself. “Yeah, I looked down and my shoe was all red from the blood…”


So I pulled the plug. I turned around and walked back to the ½. I put a little limp in my gait so the oncoming pack wouldn’t yell encouragement. I turned my chip in and they gave me a medal. I felt like a chump.


I know my body. I made the easy call - that sometimes is the hardest call!

It wasn’t that bad but the gauges indicated it was headed in that direction. I had run fairly smart for the first half. I had made sure to draft well in the windy bits and conserve my energy. I had a couple fast miles in the beginning to burn off the adrenaline, but nothing outrageous and I let it go early to settle back into the safe zone. I didn’t chase the ½ marathoners as they ran erratically. I stayed in the pack and focused on keeping my head down. I ate my PowerGel and sipped my Gatorade.

In spite of all this I just didn’t feel good. The wind was a struggle the hills were a pain and my stride felt short and tight. I was working way too hard. I’m no rookie. I know that marathons are supposed to be hard, but the hard part isn’t supposed to start until the end. The first half is supposed to be conversational.

At the half I knew it was going to be a long day, but decided to keep going. The marathon is a long race and things can change. You can feel crappy and then snap out of it. Then I started losing altitude. After being consistently 5 – 10 seconds above my target pace I was starting to slow. Mile 15 is too early to be losing altitude.

Mile 12 was 6 seconds off target pace. Mile 13 was 8 seconds off. Mile 14 was 12 seconds off. Even with so much time in the bank I saw where this was headed. I was going to be like the B17 in the movie “Memphis Bell” – 10 miles from the airfield, 3 engines on fire and out of gas. I’ve been there before.

So I pulled the plug. I turned around and walked back to the ½. I put a little limp in my gait so the oncoming pack wouldn’t yell encouragement. I turned my chip in and they gave me a medal. I felt like a chump. I skipped the buffet, grabbed my bag and fled tail between my legs. Live to fight another day.

What Happened?
Let’s break it down. How did I get to that spot? Why did I feel I should pull the plug, turn around and walk back in?

Shoe Sabotage…
I don’t know what I was thinking. As the race approached this week I had the brilliant idea to wear my ‘faster’ shoes instead of the bullet-proof Asics I’d been training in. I’m injury free and figured I could get by with less support and would benefit from the lighter shoe.

I’ve logged a good number of miles in these ‘faster’ shoes because I use them for my speed and tempo workouts on the track and treadmill. Around mile 7 I felt the blisters. Damn. Blisters won’t kill you, but they certainly are an inconvenience. After a few miles they basically go numb and it’s only a problem the next day when you want to walk. Even so I knew what I was biting off here – 7 miles is early in the race to get blisters – my feet were going to be hamburger at the end.

Death by chocolate…
How is it possible that I can log 50 miles a week and gain weight? In a word: “Chocolate”. I’ve never had a sweet tooth. Candy is not one of my vices. Unfortunately over the course of the last couple months in my real job we successfully signed Hershey and Nestle as customers.

Even as I was training I was doing “professional research” on various bars of high end chocolate. Every meeting we had there were piles of Reese’s cups, truffles and chocolate eggs. I figured, “Hey, I’m training for a marathon. I can eat whatever I want!” It appears that chocolate defies that rule. Usually that last 5-10 lbs melts away in the final hard weeks. This time it didn’t and I was running heavy. That’s why I thought lighter shoes might help! Oh, what a wicked web we weave!

Train in vain - Bad Plan…
It probably was a fine plan, just bad for me. I ran a Hal Higdon Advanced 1. I try different training plans to test them out and stay out of a rut. This one had the miles but had a couple quirks that I think were wrong for me.

First quirk was that it had me doing long pace runs on Saturday followed by long runs on Sunday. I think I may be too old for back-to-back hard workouts like this. I ended up running too hard on Saturdays and then having low quality long runs on Sundays.

The second thing was that I would have liked more speed work. I felt slow. Stamina is great, but it doesn’t help if you can’t keep up. On the positive side I have no doubt that I had the distance no problem.

The final thing I didn’t like was a 3 week uber-taper that had me running barely 18 miles with no quality work in the final week. It made me feel sluggish and I’m sure it exasperated my weight issue.

There’s snow place like home - Bad Weather…
We got so much snow this winter. I had to spend too much time on the treadmill. I don’t think the treadmill is a good substitute for the track. The treadmill is an analog for running, but it’s not perfect. It’s not the same. I think you lose something in the translation.

My local track has been snow covered since October. It forced me to do my pace runs on the open road and I’m sure I ran them too fast, more like tempo. It’s more than mechanics. I find the track comforting because it’s so discrete and measurable. If I can’t verify my training on the track I lose mental rigor.

My home 10k trail was all buried too. I did some sloppy snow slogging and some snowshoe cross training. It’s a great workout but not the same mechanics as running on the clear ground. It’s also an analog and loses something in the translation.

A good carpenter doesn’t blame the tools - Wrong race…
I’m not going to name names. That wouldn’t be fair to blame the course for me having a crappy day. I’m sure this is a wonderful course for others, but it’s bad for me.

There seemed to a head wind on 75+% of the loop course. The ½ marathon is huge and starts at the same time as the marathon. It’s a double loop. All these people start picking up the pace near their finish and it makes you feel a bit like a slug being passed so much. Then they turn off and you’re all alone to face the wind and hills again.

But – the truth is the course had me psyched out. I’ve run it before and struggled last time. I talked myself into struggling again. Certain courses have the ‘voodoo’ on me. This is one of them. I’m not going to run it anymore.

Let me check my calendar - Too much going on…
Why do I try to ‘squeeze in’ a marathon? A “fast” attempt is not something you can shoehorn in between dropping the kids off at practice and picking up your dry cleaning. You have to clean the slate so you can focus on the race. All I did was make my family miserable with stress attacks all weekend.

Now I’m on a plane headed to Orlando for a conference. If everything went right I’d be able to towel off, jump in my truck and get to the airport. Sorry – no showers. The thought of being ass-kicked and bloody limping through Logan airport, simmering in my own salt was not an appealing award for a job well done.

This falls into the ‘setting yourself up to fail’ category. My wife told me I was nuts. Hey – she’s been telling me that for 24 years! Next time I make a serious run at something I’m taking Friday AND Monday off and I’m making my family go with me. Screw work – you can’t train for 6 months and then rush about like over-caffeinated idiot.

If I had a support crew and a day to recover I probably would have gone for the ‘train wreck finish’ option – guts and glory.

Que Será Será- Not my day…
When you get to the bottom line, sometimes it just isn’t your day. Do what you will; you will have good days and bad days. Sometimes you’ll train right and have a bad day. Sometimes you’ll doing everything wrong and have a great day. That’s what makes the marathon a worthwhile hard thing. The marathon has the ability to humble us. That’s why we do it. It’s our great white whale.

I ask you, from the bottom of my conflicted psyche, is it better to cash it in and walk when things aren’t going your way? Or is it better to harpoon the beast and be dragged raging to the depths? Maybe today I’m the saner and rational man, but I feel beaten. Even the greats DNF, but I bet they feel crappy about it too.

I can take comfort in being mature enough to “know when to fold ‘em”. I did get a nice 15 mile pace run in. The sun rises again tomorrow. I’ll be back. I’ll learn from my mistakes. It is a good thing that the race can still teach me after all these years and all these miles.

C’est la vie…
Next up I get back on the training bus for Boston and Mt Washington. This will be my tenth Boston and I’ll be in great shape for it. Maybe I’ll race it. I’ve got enough time for some quality speed work and a couple more 20 milers.

I’ve never run Mt. Washington before and the training is going to be a bitch. I figure I’ll set the treadmill elevation on ‘comically steep’ once a week and churn away. That and the speed work should be an interesting give and take! The track should be melting over the next couple weeks and I’ll be back on more comfortable terra firma.

That’s the ticket. Look forward. Put the day behind. Learn from it. File it. Move on to the next thing.

Keep your chin up – summer is almost here!

See you out there.



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