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The weariness of the long-distance runner

February 11, 2010

Running long distances is different from running short distances. It’s not rocket science. The differences affect the ways in which you pace a race, though, and it’s important to understand what you can and can’t do before your feet write a cheque that your lactate threshold can’t cash – to coin a slightly awkward phrase.

When you run a 10k, if you’re running it hard, you’re operating at the fringes of your aerobic capacity. While you’re not sprinting, you will accumulate lactic acid as you switch up towards the anaerobic phase of your race at the end. Elements of the race before the final kilometre may have build up acid in your muscles – hills, battles for a position, choking down water from a small plastic cup mid-run. It all builds up.

When you run a marathon distance, you’re operating well below your aerobic threshold. You need to be able to get through the first 10k without noticing it. In fact, if you can get through the first 20k without noticing it, you’re on the right path. But as you continue to run, so the repeated action of running stiffens your joints and builds up fatigue.

On Sunday I ran 23.9 miles – 2.3 miles short of the marathon distance. I’d had three days of rest, a pile of carbs the night before, a big bowl of porridge in the morning and I was feeling good. I’d set my pace for 7:30 miles, but inevitably set to beating that. Consequently I’d clocked up several sub-7 minute miles early on and was feeling fine. But as I got further in, despite not breathing hard or feeling particularly tired in that end-of-the-race panting sort of a way, I began to feel the fatigue.

Your mind focuses on pain. In this case, my feet. (As you run long distances, your feet expand. My laces had been loose, but by mile 20 they were cutting into my foot.) My hips felt stiff and my ankle had taken a jarring from a misjudged raised curb. Despite all this, I didn’t feel the same weight in my legs and arms that I get from the last kilometre of a hard 10k.

And so, the moral of the story is that pacing is everything. To run long distance you need patience. You need to know your own abilities, when to push and to know – hardest of all – when to hold back.

When I get to Paris for the marathon, I fully expect to see people racing away at the start line. The challenge will be in not storming off with them.

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