The long run: Disrespect it at your peril

Long runs - I have a love-hate relationship with them. While some people find the idea of running for 2-3 hours as their own personal version of hell, to me it's the anchor of my week.

It's a time for taking stock of everything that happened at work, home, and in life during the week and for planning the week ahead. It's also a period of time where I can get 2-3 solid hours of me time and think about things that have been lingering on my mind and come to decisions on things that have been pestering me for a while. (Just ask the Muffin - sometimes after long runs, I've come back with thoughts on life-changing decisions, some that often surprise her). And of course, long runs allow me to see where my fitness levels are in my training plan and if I'm on track or way behind. 

But I also loathe some aspects of the long run, such as the preparation that goes into it the day before - such as meal planning, getting rest, and a good night's sleep. You also have to plan out your day following the run as a solid 2-3 hour run will certainly impact any major plans. (Check out the Muffin's guide to this. She knows more than me about plans going AWOL after a long run). But most of all - what I really despise about the long run is its ability to expose you.

Didn't get enough hours sleep? It'll show on a long run. Didn't eat your go-to meal the night before? Yeah, that'll slow your pace right down or make your feel sluggish and terrible during extended stages of it. Over exert yourself the day before? Then kiss a steady, comfortable pace goodbye. 

The long run - like the sea - can be unforgiving and cruel if you disrespect it. Take for instance last Saturday. Currently I'm training for the Queens Marathon at the end of April and this was the first of three "critical" long runs before the big day: an 18 miler. 

Previously, the farthest distance traveled on this particular training journey was 15 miles so 18 was a considerable jump.  

I've previously done three marathons: NYC in 2014 and 2015 and Philadelphia, also in 2015. For all of them I've used New York Road Runners' virtual training program and am doing the same for this one. When detailing the strategy for my run, the program warned: 

This is the first of three critical Long Runs that you'll do leading into the Queens Marathon. Be sure to prepare properly for these runs -- including eating the right dinner and getting enough rest on the previous day. You can't just "get through" these runs -- you may do more harm than good that way. Schedule the run on a day when you have the best chance to do it well (at least five days after your last Long Run).

Well, due to complacency - or cockiness thinking I had been through all this before and that I would cruise by - I ignored key warning signs. I didn't get enough rest the day before and didn't have my go-to pre-long run meal, instead eating out with friends and not nearly getting enough carbs in my system.  Those decisions, my own decisions, were completely avoidable, but I made them thinking I would be fine. 

So I thought, but I was soon reminded that you must never disrespect the long run. Waking up on Saturday, I felt sluggish and not myself. As a result, it took me longer to get out the door - after a pre run bagel with jam and peanut butter, my go-to source of fuel before a long run. The first mile, I wasn't feeling it, but thankfully it picked up and I started feeling myself around mile 3.

Only 15 more to go.

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Then, my fueling strategy went awry. Normally I carry a water bottle filled with Gatorade with me and take a large swig of it every 20 mins. However, after an hour and 20 mins, I was - on schedule - out of fuel. No big problem as I brought some money to top up from one of the trusty food vendors littered around the park.

And then it happened. There were no vendors in sight. 1:20 stretched to 1:30 and then to 1:45. At this point, I could feel my stomach, as if it was saying "feed me carbs and fuel now dammit." Normally, I know exactly where the vendors will line up, but on this day, on the north west side of the park, there were none in sight. None.

Suddenly, I looked at my watch and my pace was dropping as I crept up to 2 hours on the clock - 40 mins without anything at all to drink. I was struggling, but like an oasis in the desert, I could see a vendor ahead. One last push up a rolling hill got me there. Foaming and frothing at the mouth, I blurted "Gatorade. Orange," only to be met with a carefree and ignorant: "Don't have any" 

Confused, thirsty, and crazed for anything to drink, I just got a water and guzzled it before getting back on course. I was less than two minutes back into things that I realized water is no substitute for carb-giving fuel such as Gatorade. At this point, I'd still about 5 miles left. Gut-check time.  

The next 45 minutes were as much mental as they were physical - even though my stomach churned and turned constantly on that final leg. By mile 17, my pace slowed down to more than 9 minutes a mile, which was slow for me on a long run.

When I hit mile 18, finishing up just off the Queensboro Bridge, my body didn't feel good. After 18 miles, chances are you won't feel like a million dollars, but on this occasion it was different. I knew what was wrong. It was a culmination of three things: the wrong dinner, lack of rest the day before, and a fuel strategy gone wrong. 

While getting through the run shows me my mental game is stronger than I would have thought, it also reminded me of how the long run is exceedingly like the sea. Respect it and it'll respect you. Disrespect it and it will come for you and leave you drowning in sweat, pain, and regrets. 

Best thing about running though is there's always your next run and if it's great, those feelings of regret or annoyance disappear.  And my next critical long run will be planned much better. That I can guarantee.  

Gary! (The Runner)