Yesterday it was finally time for my "practice marathon", to see if I could run a full 26.2 consecutive miles without collapsing. I was absolutely determined to complete my entire planned route (above) and not cut it short like I did three weeks ago, even if I had to crawl to the end.
I headed out at 9:30 a.m. after having overnight oats which is becoming my standard breakfast for very long runs. I also packed five dates - big soft Medjool dates, which I'd pre-pitted - in lieu of energy gels. (I'd been meaning to throw out my remaining Gu gels since I found out that they likely contain animal-derived amino acids, and when one exploded in my Camelback and got all over my cell phone, that sealed their fate.)
I'd not slept well the previous two nights, and felt it. The weather was sunny and in the mid-60s, so I doffed my shirt after the first two miles. (Fortunately I'd had the foresight to wear a sports bra for this run.)
Heading toward Golden Gate Park on Arguello Blvd, I saw a large group of what looked to be middle school students running my way. Normally I would be annoyed by this as I don't like kids and another group of such students has almost run me down while running on the Hyde Street hill and Aquatic Park. But this time I felt a kinship with them, and was happy to see young people encouraged to exercise. The front leaders sprinted while the ones in the back walked slowly and chatted with their friends.
By the time I reached the park a few blocks later, the group had turned around and caught up with me. They were instructed to wait at the top of the hill at the park entrance. My walking break came up so I moved to the side to let them pass, but they were moving a lot more slowly now. When they got to the top some doubled over and breathed heavily. I smiled a bit, thinking they made the classic error of going out too fast, but then I shouldn't judge as I don't know what their training plan (if any) was, and after all they're just kids! I headed down into the park, feeling good.
I continued to feel good all the way out to the ocean and along the Great Highway, running my fastest miles there (though I knew it was important to keep my speed in check). The weather here was noticeably cooler, with fog replacing the sunny skies. Turning onto Wawona Blvd, I enjoyed seeing chickens in a yard near 44th Ave. I keep meaning and forgetting to leave a card for the owner, asking if they want some snails from the Free Farm for their chickens. I was just beginning to feel fatigued at mile 12, two and a half hours into the run, as I headed into Stern Grove and got my restroom break down to four minutes flat. I left the turnaround point feeling refreshed.
Back in the park, around mile 17 my legs were feeling sore, especially my left thigh. My knees were still fine at that point though. By mile 19 I was forcibly looking for anything to distract me from thoughts of how much farther I had to go. Fortunately the park provided plenty of beautiful flora and fauna. I saw lots of turtles at Spreckels Lake, and more of the same plus goslings and ducklings at Stow Lake, and was really glad I'd added these park features to my run. I was tired and hurting though, and my pace was slowing considerably.
Back on Arguello Blvd at mile 22, I was surprised and delighted to see the group of middle school students running toward me again. I smiled hoping one might recognize me, then realized that this must be an entirely different group of students from the same school, perhaps having last-period gym class (it was around 2:30 p.m.). If they had a teacher/coach I didn't see them, though I heard an adult voice. Too bad as I would have really loved to say that yes, I was the same person you saw around 10:30 a.m., and I'd run out to Stern Grove and back in the meantime, but who knows if that would have impressed anyone. I smiled through the pain and fatigue and continued on.
I made it back to West Pacific and a little ways into the Presidio before my GPS watch battery died just after mile 23, five hours and 13 minutes into the run, the farthest I'd ever gone. I started the interval timer on my backup watch, which had been keeping time in parallel since the beginning of the run. But by now my knee was starting to hurt and I was so tired that I could no longer run a full five minutes before each one-minute walking interval. Especially on the hills, both up and down, I walked; downhill was especially hard on my knee. At the park exit on Presidio Blvd I stopped to shake sand out of my shoes, as briefly as possible because I was worried if I stopped moving I wouldn't start again.
I walked and shuffled in misery, forcing myself again not to think of how much farther I had to go. "Forward", I told myself. As long as I was moving forward I was making progress. The beauty of the park was replaced by houses and cars. The stately, well-manicured mansions of Pacific Heights were not as much fun to look at as birds and turtles, but I had to distract myself somehow. I soon gave up running entirely and simply walked, feeling defeated.
Then I saw a single word chalked on the sidewalk: "Forgive". Yes. I would forgive myself for walking. It was not shameful. I was still moving. I would not complete this route in under six hours as I'd hoped, but today was not race day so that really didn't matter. I was moving forward.
By the time I got back to Van Ness it was by sheer force of will that I turned and walked to Bay Street and back, the final extra leg I'd added to the route to make it up and over 26.2 miles. (I'd decided while planning my route that adding the extra miles along a very familiar, though noisy, street would be better at this stage in my training than attempting a totally new course.) I was moving so slowly by this point that I had to put my shirt back on as I was feeling cold. I had no more beauty to distract me, cheered only by the unmistakable sound of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, two of which I spied perched high on a building. I touched a pole at Bay, turned around, and slowly walked back home.
Stopped my timer two blocks before I got back to my apartment, as planned. I'd been running and walking for six hours and thirty-one minutes. The last three miles had taken me over an hour.
I stumbled in the door, downed a tall glass of coconut water and downloaded and began studying my data. Only later did I eat some food and ice down my legs, which I should have done immediately for better recovery. I also should have started eating the dates much earlier in the run, and packed more of them, but I simply wasn't hungry. It's taken half a lifetime to train myself to only eat when I'm hungry, so deliberately breaking that rule is difficult for me psychologically. Even the large batch of chocolate chip cookies I'd stayed up late baking the night before wasn't very tempting; I ate only two of them.
Comparing my planned route with the portion my GPS recorded, it looks like it was dead on up until the turnaround, but I went farther into Stern Grove than I'd drawn on the map, so the mile markers on the way back are perhaps a quarter mile off. So my total distance was probably over 26.5 miles. Anything over 26.2 is good as that gives me confidence that I can complete the official distance.
I'm glad I survived this run, however slowly, and I'm glad I hit a wall during training so that I can learn from my mistakes and do better during the marathon itself. After this experience I'm no longer aiming for an unrealistic 5:15 time goal; I will just be content to finish within the six-hour time limit. And I'm shortening my last planned long run, three weeks from now, to 26 miles rather than 28. I want another chance to finish this route without the death march bit at the end.
Six weeks to go till the marathon. Wish me luck, I'm going to need it.