Running on Tilt

The Bite and the Bonk

Pacing vocabulary

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After months of pushing the envelope physically and seeing marked improvements, I had a sloppy week of training. The trouble began with last week’s Armory workout, a 4 X 1200, which I completed in splits of 4:03, 4:04, 4:03, and 4:10. I ran faster than I had over the same workout in January, but that 4:10 at the end ruined it. Panting like a dog and untethered from the pack I had run with during the first three, it was an ignoble way to finish. My Central Park Track Club coach said that I lacked “sting” because I had run too far the previous day.

Though I liked the coach’s use of the word “sting,” his comment kind of stung. It forced me to question my fixation on mileage above all else, specifically, my adherence to the sixty-mile week. Two nights after the 4 X 1200, I again lacked sting in a 6.8-mile sustained run in the park. And again over the weekend, when I ran three big loops around the park, my last loop was slower than the first two. It may seem natural that one slows down over the course of a run or a workout, but an evenly paced race, or a race with negative splits, is generally the best way to run. To run a good race in the marathon, I need to be stronger at the finish, not weaker. With the race now three weeks away, it is time to start descending from the high mileage and refocusing on race tactics and negative splits.

Sting, as a noun or verb, is useful for describing workouts and short races. To sting seems a preplanned strategy for 800-meter runners such as Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy and the American Nick Symmonds. Borzakovskiy came from the back of the pack to win gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and Symmonds slingshot from the back to win the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. The most dramatic example of an 800-meter sting I’ve seen is the 1972 Olympics final, in which Dave Wottle comes from well off the pace—in a golf visor, no less—to claim the gold. During the first lap Wottle was so far back that the announcer speculated that he might be injured. Bernard Lagat annually stings his opponents at the Millrose Games Wannamaker Mile. Usually it is Australia’s Craig Mottram who he stings; this year it was New Zealand’s Nick Willis.

Marathoners sting too. At last weekend’s Rotterdam Marathon, Duncan Kibet came from behind over the last hundred meters to outkick James Kwambai. To say that Kwambai lacked sting would be unfair, though—both men ran negative splits and finished in 2:04:27. In 2005, Paul Tergat stung Hendrik Ramaala at the New York City Marathon in an equally dramatic finish. And Tergat has been stung repeatedly by Haile Gebrselassie in 10k races on the track.

Marathon victors are more often decided not by the ability to sprint the final few meters but by the ability to sustain a withering pace over the last several miles. Sting doesn’t quite describe this. It’s more like bite. In adhering to mileage goals, I have calculated that whatever sting has been lost in particular workouts or preparation races will be returned as bite during the latter stages of Big Sur. It would be a welcome breakthrough, as the opposite of the bite is the bonk, which I am all too familiar with from my two New York City marathons.

A friend of mine once described his concept of a “run forever” pace. It is the nice, easy pace at which it seems you could run forever. A run forever pace is a reward for being fit: it’s a wonderful addition to a runner’s arsenal, ideal for a long run in some scenic fresh-aired setting far from cars or buildings, at the beginning of a vacation, or at some moment in time removed from worry or responsibility. It is a dignified pace, the pace of the tortoise racing the hare.

A run forever pace is not a shuffle. A shuffle is what happens when you bonk. A race becomes a shuffle when the body breaks down and the goal becomes simply to finish upright rather than to beat this or that competitor or whatever time goal is set. The shuffle is a menace, adding several minutes per mile to the end of a marathon. I learned that nobody is immune to the shuffle, as I witnessed some years ago a world class runner shuffling in Central Park toward the end of the New York City Marathon, his reddened eyes glazed over. Most elite runners prefer to drop out than to shuffle.

There is solace afforded the shuffler late in a race, but it is grim: he or she is likely to pass a bit of roadkill. Roadkill consists of marathoners who have been beaten down even further —hobblers, who once were shufflers but then had to walk and then hobble—and wilted sunflowers, those runners forced to a complete standstill on the side of the road, their heads drooping and their arms clutching the backs of their cramped legs. Every marathon has its shufflers, hobblers, and wilted sunflowers, the percentages of which increase markedly after mile twenty.

My top priorities from now until the Big Sur marathon on April 26 are 1) not to get injured, and 2) not to get sick. I don’t have complete control over these variables, but the frequency with which I use the hand sanitizer as I exit the bathroom at work has skyrocketed, particularly as I’m using the bathroom multiple times a day given the many cups of water and bottles of Gatorade I’m drinking. I’ve got one tune-up race left on the schedule—the Scotland 10K in Central Park this upcoming Saturday.

At the Scotland 10k I’d like to quicken my per-mile pace from the last race, despite the longer distance. I averaged 6:21 per mile for a 4-miler in December and 6:20 per mile for an 8k last month. I’ll now try to run quicker over a 10k, which is a bit more than six miles. This time before the race I’ll ease off the mileage a bit. I want to get out at a respectable clip and to finish properly what I start.