The idea of a race report written from a coach’s perspective was suggested by an alumnus (shout-out to Dr. P) not too long ago so I thought to finally write one now because this race gave me a unique perspective into some of the work that Larry and I did over the past few years with Jane, who is the main subject of this report.
For the first time ever, Jane and I had the chance to race against each other with the same goal in mind and before I go into the finer details of the race, this provided me with so much insight that I would have otherwise missed had I been just cheering on the sidelines.
This report covers experience and insights gathered during the race from both a coach and runner’s perspective.
A little bit of history
Briefly…Jane approached me about 3.5 years ago and asked for some help in the marathon. At that time, Adaptive was but a concept in my mind. Eager to get back into coaching however (having coached basketball previously), I jumped at the chance to do so with Jane, who already had the reputation of being a strong runner. After coaching Jane for that first session, Adaptive was born.
In those three years, she managed to lower her race times from a 3:10 (prior to coaching) to winning the women’s title at the 2017 Road2Hope Hamilton Marathon with a 2:58. There were some slower races in between but mostly due to tough conditions including the horrifically windy, wet, and cold Boston marathon earlier this year.
Somewhere between Hamilton and Boston, I felt that Jane experienced a breakthrough of sorts by A) breaking 3 hours for the firs time, and B) finishing Boston well in those conditions.
I had very high hopes for Jane judging by how I felt she did during training.
I won’t go too much into her actual training other than to say that we focused on areas where we felt she needed development. Larry, Jane and I pretty much unanimously agreed on what needs to be looked at during the season. The benefit of working with the same athlete over the years is that you really get to see how they developed and how they like to train. This allowed me to design a program that can take her to the next level without pushing past her physical limits.
We worked on things like handling unexpected race conditions through a lot of change of pace intervals, fueling and nutrition, speed and power development through sprints and gym work, etc. It was all designed to get her to break 2:55 on a hilly course. We also worked a lot on the mental side of racing.
You really couldn’t have asked for a better day. Very little wind, +4 to start and +9 to finish on a partly cloudy morning. The time difference between Toronto and Sacramento worked to our advantage as well. The race started at 7 AM, which meant that our bodies felt like it was 10.
After going through the course in our head for the umpteenth time, we felt we had a very sound strategy heading into the start corral. The first 10 km had some fairly gentle uphills and longer downhills sections, this should allow us to run more freely. The 2nd 10 km was the most aggressive of the race with up to five fairly aggressive hills interspersed among gentler ones plus it had some fairly challenging downhills as well. While downhills take a lot less effort to run, those are the ones that can destroy your quads.
For this 2nd part, we planned to back off the hills a bit and if all went well, we would cross the halfway point between 1:24:30 and 1:25.
The 2nd half of the course promised a large number of rolling sections until about 34 km where it flattens out until the end. We would run that at whatever pace is needed to get under 2:50.
Speaking of 2:50, that has been my personal goal for five years now and I felt that this was race was by far the best chance for me to get it. My own training went quite well and apart from a minor setback in the middle of it, I thought I had done enough to give me a real shot at it. No excuses but I would have to be perfect.
From Jane’s perspective, she was basically killing every workout during training doing my paces and finishing them in much stronger fashion than I did. So in the weeks leading up to the race, I started to convince her to cast aside the 2:55 goal and run with me. I knew she had the tools to finish under 2:50 and now I needed her to believe it.
Before leaving Toronto, one of my other runners asked me how I thought Jane would do and why I thought I could beat her despite knowing that she was in better shape. My answer was, “it’s because I am willing to risk it all to get to my goal. I don’t care if I blow up in the middle of the race if it gives me a chance to go sub 2:50, while Jane prefers to run more conservatively to give herself the best chance to finish fast. If Jane is willing to risk it and run at the pace that I know she can then she can run under 2:50”.
I said both methods can be effective and it really depends on each runner’s personality and what makes them feel more confident heading into the race.
As the saxophonist slowly and elegantly blew out the final notes of the Star-Spangled Banner, we did all we could to stop shivering in the crowded starting corral. This race boasts of having extremely fast runners and since they did not assign any starting waves, everybody who was gunning for a fast time pushed their way into the front. I honestly never thought that something like this would work but yet it did because when the air horn sounded, Jane and I didn’t really have to weave in and out. All the runners bunched around us zoomed ahead so quickly that I felt that we were the slow ones.
Like we planned, we ran freely up and down the gentle rolling hills in Folsom. It felt almost like a normal Sunday long run with 10,000 of your closest friends. The kilometers ticked by easily and we hit the 5 km mark at 20:16, a little slower than what I wanted but it felt extremely easy so I wasn’t worried.
We hit 10 km at 40:12, a much better pace and I still felt great. I looked over at Jane and noticed her face was a bit tight. She muttered something about heavy legs and laces flapping but I assured her it was tied properly and to ignore it.
We took our gels at our planned intervals and spontaneously decided to take turns at the water stops in order to save precious seconds.
Up the hardest hills we went a bit after mile 10 where we eased off in pacing. I wanted to attack it a bit more aggressively but was feeling very strong so decided to sit back and run it as planned.
All this time Jane was running next to me, face tight, a picture of concentration. I was getting a bit worried about her because she usually doesn’t go into BF mode until much later when she really needs to work hard.
We crossed the half at 1:25:29, a full 30 seconds slower than anticipated but I wasn’t too worried because I felt that I could run forever. Jane asked me how I felt and I said “Great!”. She stayed mum and kept on running. I felt she was in a bit of trouble but since she was keeping up, I stayed quiet and decided to let her work things through herself. I think I may have said “all we need now is a 1:24:30 and we are done”.
The 8 or 9 km were mostly the same. We would mention the hills as it came up and help each other with water. Not too much was said but a whole lot was conveyed.
Something happened on the way to…
…35K because at 30K we were even (OK I was behind 2 seconds but who’s counting). I started struggling just before that actually and wasn’t sure how it all came apart so quickly. My legs were achy and my chest was tightening but it was manageable. Jane, on the other hand, looked fresher and fresher with each step. This was very similar to our hard workouts where I noticed she got stronger the further we went and I struggled to finish.
My thoughts drifted to those change-of pace intervals. Like Jane, I struggle with late race fade…this is typical of someone whose fatigue resistance isn’t at a high level. One way to address it is to prevent your body from locking into one pace during training. This achieves several things including forcing your body to process lactate more efficiently along with creating an uncomfortable mental state by switching paces often within a workout.
As Jane started pulling away, I knew it was time to dip into my bag of tricks. I can probably tolerate suffering better than most people. I channeled Paavo Nurmi, Allie Keiffer, Deressa Chimsa, everyone who told me I couldn’t do it, etc. More than a few times I would tell myself to “manage your emotions, don’t panic. She is still in sight”. It would work briefly at times but the pain came back, stronger than ever.
I got a bit of a respite at 34km when cresting the last hill (bridge into downtown Sacramento) when a full row of spin cyclists were cheering the runners on. I momentarily forgot about the suffering, waved back and picked up my pace. At this point, I could still see Jane about 20-30 seconds in front of me (could have been a minute or two, who knows) and continuing to run well.
I started channeling Eliud Kipchoge at this point as I use him as a last resort. I also called up to my dad for some help. It worked for a bit as I slowly started catching up to Jane. I thought this is it. I am going to reel her in and catch her around 39.
Sadly, the burst was short-lived. I managed to get down to 3:50 pace but couldn’t hold on. I asked for more help from dad and, in retrospect probably should have asked in Chinese since he couldn’t really speak English…LOL. Either way, I felt my strength fade. It’s actually like my dad to let me go and figure it out on my own. A life lesson that ultimately brought me a lot of success in my life.
With 5 km left, I lost sight of Jane. My mind was telling me to stop as I had trouble breathing. Each breath felt like a wheeze, like how you breathe when you are having a really good cry. My legs were surprisingly holding up but it was my mind that wanted to stop. I said no.
It felt like I was running against a headwind that was only blowing against me. One painful step after another, I was convinced that I was down to a 4:30 pace. The only thing I promised myself was that I will not stop until I cross the finish line.
Finally, from what seemed like an eternity of running, I see the 400 meters to go sign. I looked at my watch in my self-induced haze and said 2:50 is gone but I can still beat Larry. I pick it up but my legs didn’t want to…I actually speed up for a bit but my lungs started burning.
200 meters to go, I am delirious. 38 seconds to run 200. F@#$! That’s a slightly slower pace than I run when I do 200m repeats in training. Give it a shot anyway you big baby. It’s not like you have anything better to do.
So I did. And I was 9 seconds too slow.
As I cross the line, I held on to someone (who then got very pissed at me because he was another runner and not a volunteer…tee hee). I then found a volunteer to hold me up for a few seconds before slowly shuffling further only to see Jane crying and telling me how sorry she was that I missed my time.
I knew she had it in her and all the training paid off. She actually sped up in the 12 km outrunning me by 2 full minutes in those kilometres.
As for me, it’s a genuinely weird feeling being both so happy and proud (of Jane) and so angry and sad (at myself). One thing about me is as much as I love winning, I hate losing even more (if this makes any sort of sense). And on that day, I lost. Not to Jane necessarily (OK yes I technically lost) but at that point, I was thinking more that I lost the battle of wills against myself.
As a coach, it is amazingly gratifying to see your athlete do well. I truly am very proud of what Larry and I were able to help Jane achieve. She still had to do all the work so all the kudos goes to her. We are just happy to have been a part of that development.
For me, it’s back to the drawing board. I think I know which areas to address during the next cycle and how to manage the late race fade. It’s really more of the same stuff that I’ll be doing, And how do I know that what I did last season was effective? Check it out yourself. These are my splits from the race. Turns out that while I was running amidst the pain fog that surrounded me in the final 7 km of the race, I actually kept it up pretty well.
I am now only 92 seconds away.