Sunday, January 21, 2024

My Road to the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials: the bumpiest roads lead to the most rewarding places!

Article by Ryan Eiler

Vermont City Marathon, 2:18 (Bib 9) 

Through plenty of good fortune and several thousand miles of training, I snuck an invite to the 2024 Olympic Trials (marathon), and was asked if I’d share a few reflections on the path to Orlando. So, here are some thoughts, recollections, and tips from the unremarkable, injury-riddled marathon career of a 37 year old who takes running more seriously than he should.

I have my dad to thank for getting me to participate in the local running club when I was in 3rd grade. I’d run 5 and 10ks, marveling at the folks who could run 6’/mile pace, all without the slightest clue of how to pace myself or dress properly. Show up on a Sunday, run until my lungs burn, and be rewarded with hot chocolate. Not a bad life as a kid. I wish I’d kept the windbreakers and sweatpants from that era – you could hear and see me coming from a quarter mile out.

From there, I ran competitively in high school for 1 ½ seasons, where injury dashed my dreams of running a 4:10 mile. I had no shot at competing in college, as Penn State requires true talent to run on their D1 program. So, I became a 10 mi/wk hobbyjogger throughout college and for the eight years after getting a real job.

In 2017, my first marathon began rather embarrassingly, as I awoke on race day to realize that I’d forgotten my racing flats. I’d make do with my Nike Pegasus trainers on the double out-and-back course along a canal path on the Delaware River, landing my first BQ in 2:40.

Since then, I’ve learned most lessons the hard way. I’ve eschewed a coach or training partners, mostly out of a lack of time and resources. Also, there’s the fact that I can be fairly stubborn when it comes to other people telling me how and when to run. I probably would have benefitted from training with other folks, but the flip side of doing 2+ hour long runs by your lonesome is that you gain a big psychological edge on race day.

An overview of steps forward and backward:

2017: Chasing the Unicorn Marathon (PA): 2:40

2018: Boston Marathon - 2:40

2019: Boston Marathon - DNS (Injury)

2020: Covid

2021: Maine Marathon - 2:27

2022: Boston Marathon - DNS (Injury)

Maine Marathon - 2:19

2023: Boston Marathon - DNS (Injury)

Vermont City Marathon - 2:18

Hartford Marathon - DNS (Injury)

Philadelphia Marathon - 2:17

I think the saying goes: “the bumpiest roads lead to the most rewarding places”, and I couldn’t agree more.

Most recently, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon, and it went as well as I could reasonably hope. I went into the race on a whim, as I had been unable to do any workouts in the 6 weeks prior thanks to an injured soleus. This would be my last reasonable chance at hitting the OTQ time of 2:18. I lucked out, with a starting temperature of 37F, only a couple hills in the first half of the race, and a pack of three other guys to help keep the rhythm at just under 2:18 pace.

The first half of the race felt controlled, but we went through the half in 1:08 — a little quicker than I had planned. This was in part due to the fact that Philly’s skyscrapers around mile 6 corrupted my GPS signal, so my Garmin’s average pace went berserk. From there on, it was running on feel and focusing on grabbing my bottles as my hands grew numb. There are two things you can’t fully trust on race day: your brain, stewing in its ocean of adrenaline and endorphins, and the mile markers to splits (at least early in the race). Thanks to these two bits of knowledge, I wasn’t sure I’d hit my sub-2:18 goal until about mile 24. I ended up 6th overall, or what I call the “5th loser”, after the guy who finished in front of me was DQ’ed for some shenanigans at a bottle table.

So what’s the secret sauce? I still have absolutely no idea – I use the canned stuff (i.e. Strava) to help me borrow training ideas from the true elites. Maybe all of those fermented carbohydrates over the years were a net positive?

My true thoughts on the matter, the ones that people are usually disappointed by but unsurprised to hear, are that results come from consistency. Consistency is a foundation on which to build, and without it, you’ll be relying on lots of luck. Consistency prevents injury, it builds aerobic base, it encourages biomechanical adaptation, it keeps you mentally grounded and disciplined, and it gives you an excuse to buy new running shoes more often.

At the risk of sounding flippant, I’ll say that I’ve found it easier to exercise seven days a week rather than five. This is absolutely not to be confused with ‘hammer workouts 7 days/week’. But we humans are creatures of habit, and removing the “am I going to work out today?” decision from your day eliminates the chance to talk yourself out of it. My bar for counting something as ‘exercise’ is fairly low: do an easy 20’ on a cardio machine, or a quick set of squats / core work with body weight or rubber bands, or heck, go run around with the dog if you have one.

Even if you get out for a three mile shuffle, your muscles, blood, and lungs are reminded of their purpose. I think most people would be surprised by the benefits of easy, consistent mileage (or jokingly, ‘junk mileage’). Getting out the door is a classic, daily pass/fail exam.

I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about pulling off a marathon PR, in case you want to trust your training to some random guy on the internet. Much of this may sound familiar, but it’s all the kind of stuff that I’ve personally tested and seen results from – not just hypothetical chin wagging. I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty of supplements, taper, etc, and instead focus on the meaty stuff.

Build your mileage slowly, and don’t kid yourself about what your body is currently capable of handling. I’ve had way too many DNS results (see above) from jumping my mileage from 50mi/wk to 80mi/wk over the course of 2 weeks. More mileage is usually better, but 0 miles is better than 120 if you’re going to risk 3 weeks of recovery.

Nutrition actually works. My go-to is a protein powder, blueberry, flaxmilk, and yogurt smoothie. I have one after every run, even on easy days, and I swear that immediately getting that into my system has helped with recovery and made me less hungry in the hours afterward. Consuming enough protein (in whichever form you prefer) during a training cycle is non-negotiable.

Do some simple strength training, if you can fit it in. A focused, 15 minute session of squats and rubber band exercises after a hard workout can work wonders by providing your muscles and tendons a type of stimulus that running can’t. After a workout, your muscles are already fatigued, so you don’t need to use as much weight to get a benefit. Doing it right after a run also starts the recovery clock sooner, allowing your body to heal for longer. I always focus on smooth, controlled execution, and I have a specific affinity for exercises which work the muscles in an eccentric manner.

Practice your fueling long before race day. This is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of marathon training. While most people only focus on what type of mileage and workouts they should be doing, they forget that they also need to train their gut. By race day, I’d recommend already having done at least four long runs, during which you replicate your race day gel and fluid intake as closely as possible. It’s such a shame when people undertrain their gut given how much they’ve trained their legs, and have a poor race because of suboptimal carb intake or GI distress. 

This also includes pre-race meals. Focus on packing down carbs in the 48 hours before a race and topping up your glycogen stores. I know exactly what I’ll be eating for lunch and dinner the day before a race, and I’ll bring it with me if I need to. Rely on food that you’ve tested before long runs which you know will sit well.

Do a variety of workouts. This will keep training interesting and will make your body adapt to both fast and long running. Personally, I use a 10x800m workout as a reliable benchmark of where my fitness stands, as it requires a combination of speed and stamina to complete. But I also do fartleks, intervals (up to 45 seconds per mile faster than marathon pace), and long runs (up to 26mi). As for the long runs — if you can’t run the last 5 miles somewhat close to race pace, that probably isn’t your race pace. Putting your body through a range of workouts teaches it to learn both speed and endurance. In other words: the speed makes marathon pace feel fairly easy, and the endurance lets you hang onto that pace for the full ‘thon.

Consistency. Yes I’m aware that I sound like a broken record. Aim to do at least an easy shuffle seven days per week (during a training block), unless your body is fatigued or hinting that there’s an injury brewing — then dial things way back. Even a very easy run can help speed recovery by improving red blood cell and platelet health, as well as encourage your body to adapt to higher mileage. Unfortunately, knowing whether you are simply tired from a workout or actually worn down and in need of a rest day comes only from experience.

This is a funny sport in many ways, and I can understand why people poke fun at it, or hate it altogether. Even though I disagree, I still enjoy the quip “I like to start my day with a run, so that I know it can’t get any worse”. It’s admittedly a bear of a sport for newcomers, and even for experienced folks there are often stretches of seemingly-endless suffering.

10,000 years ago, running may have been a highly prized skill, but these days nobody really needs to be good at it. However, in a world that’s increasingly focused on comfort (smart refrigerators and no-stir peanut butter!) and convenience (doorstep wine delivery in 20 minutes!), I can’t think of many things simpler or more effective than a brisk run to maintain a properly functioning head and heart for the long haul.

Every time you get out the door, you arrive home a different, stronger person than the one you were when you started. I think that’s why we do it.
Comments and Questions Welcome Below! 

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Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I don't run often with others, I am so focused on myself and enjoying the run, it would be difficult for me and runners of different levels running together is difficult even if people are way more aware and conscious than I am.
I do mostly trail running alone, so I have to be a bit more aware not to break down in the middle of nowhere without a chance to notify and possibly lead help to my position. I usually take a short break and phone my wife where I am and she can track me with her phone.
My problem is not consistency, I run daily. My problem is not busting my right ankle weak spot yet again and in case I get problems taking a long enough break.
Also, I blame you guys for me buying new running shoes long before I wasted the previous pair! ;)

Anonymous said...

I love those personal stories and experiences here on RTR. While the shoe reviews are the best I found on the internet, articles like yours show us that, besides the material, running is so much about the people who do it too: their highs and their lows, their mistakes and their lessons learned. It makes this website feel very personal and relatable. Thanks!