This is the last article in the series “Training for Toronto,” an account of my preparation for the 2012 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Previous articles included Foundations, Fueling, and The Program. Here’s an overall picture of the article series and its contents:
“The marathon is less a physical event than a spiritual encounter. In infinite wisdom, God built into us a 32K racing limit, a limit imposed by inadequate sources of the marathoner’s prime racing fuel – carbohydrates. But we, in our human wisdom, decreed that the standard marathon be raced over 42K. So it is in that physical no-man’s-land, which begins after the 32K mark, that the irresistible appeal of the marathon lies.” Dr. Timothy Noakes, The Lore of Running.
Change “spiritual” to “mental,” change “God” to “nature,” and you’ve got the subject of this article: how am I going to get my head around running the Toronto Marathon in my goal time of 4 hours and 30 minutes?
To do so, I’ve learned about something called the Central Governor Theory, changed my thinking about the much-feared “wall,” and have integrated both into my training.
First, the Central Governor Theory… This is a hypothesis, first proposed in 1924 by Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner Archibald Hill, and later developed by Noakes, that posits a process in the brain that regulates exercise regarding a calculated safe exertion by the body. In a nutshell, it suggests that the CGT controls the body’s level of physical activity so that its intensity can’t threaten the body’s homeostasis by causing anoxia damage to the heart. Basically, the proposed “central governor” limits exercise by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibres, which is then experienced as fatigue. This is a complex idea which doesn’t lend itself to brief explanations, though, so you might want to look at the Wikipedia article on the subject.
OK, that’s a start. But the CGT is deep-set in the brain, and doesn’t lend itself easily to change. It’s going to prevent me from going so quickly I expire – but how can I modify what goes on in my brain to allow me to go more quickly, or at least more comfortably?
I’ve found the beginning of an answer in Brain Training for Runners, by Matt Fitzgerald. In it, Fitzgerald offers an eight-step “mind training” program that works by “tweaking,” if you like, the way the mind and the body interact when training for races. This isn’t positivist psychology – there’s no talk of attitudinal adjustments, “believe and it will happen,” or mantras. Instead, Fitzgerald suggests training programs that build coordinated mental and physical strengths to approach and surpass previous limits. In fact, his programs aren’t dissimilar to Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, which I’ve been using to train for Toronto. And both Fitzgerald and Pfitzinger acknowledge a debt to coaching legend and author Jack Daniels, whom they see as a mentor and coaching model. (I highly recommend Fitzgerald’s book, by the way. It’s easy to read, chock-full of ideas, and helpful.)
Which brings me to the idea of thinking about “the wall” differently.
Threshold: “Hitting the wall” (or “the bonk,” as it’s affectionately known) describes a condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy. That’s the time-honoured theory, anyway – there are a number of new approaches to endurance running that suggest it may not be wholly valid. One I’ve cooked up on my own (credit where credit is due, right?) is to turn the whole thing around, and see the 32K limit as a desirable rather than something to be feared. That’s a big job for me. The 32K mark has been my nemesis on every marathon I’ve done so far (in 1980, 1981, 2009, and 2010) and was also the place where I decided to abandon the barefoot 50K ultra I attempted in 2009. In a very real way, I’m scared of it – and I don’t want that to be the case at Toronto. So I’ve tried, on my long and very long training runs, to see 32K as the entry point to a place I want to be, a place where I can discover myself anew, a place Hunter S. Thompson once called “the place where the definitions are.” From the start to the 32K mark will be familiar territory. I want to approach the territory between 32K and the finish as somewhere good, because I’ll discover good things there. The image I have in my head looks something like this:
Training: My training for Toronto has gone well. I’ve had the usual bumps along the way (including a puncture wound that took longer to heal than I thought it would), and the usual crises of confidence about 1/ running a marathon at all and 2/ doing it barefoot. But I’ve had some very positive training experiences as well, including a growing feeling of physical strength and a good half marathon race. I’m just a few days away from the beginning of my taper, during which I’ll continue to add strength/speed runs and, perhaps more importantly, look within myself for the mental depth that will, I think, make all the difference towards the end of the 42K distance.
Will I be ready? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I have trained well. I’ve been consistent, I’ve been adaptive, and I now know my strengths and limits better than before. No, because there’ll always be that little corner of my mind that is in awe of the challenge of running 42K. But that’s part of the appeal and the magic of the marathon, isn’t it? It’s all about ordinary people (like me) doing something quite extraordinary – and not only living to tell the tale, but celebrating the experience and the result.
Here’s to the marathon, whatever it may bring!