Saturday, May 17, 2008

What I Learned From Running Marathons

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I used to describe myself in my profile as a Laser sailor and a marathon runner. That may have been a bit disingenuous. I've never really made a commitment to marathon running as a lifetime pursuit, a part of my identity, in quite the same way as I have with Laser sailing. But I did run three marathons (one each in 2005, 6 and 7), I did complete a defined training program over approx. six months for each event, I did travel to the UK to run the London Marathon in 2007, I did finish all three marathons... and I did learn a couple of things along the way.

I haven't met many other Laser sailors who run marathons. Probably the demands of training at a high level for a marathon and for a major Laser championship are mutually incompatible. There may be another reason. One of the things I learned while training for marathons does have some relevance to sailing, I think; but another thing I learned while running marathons could actually be harming my performance as a racing sailor.

Learning #1: Performance improvement comes slowly and with regular practice. My marathon training program basically involved running four times a week for six months. The duration and intensity of the training increased over the six months and then tapered off in the last couple of weeks. It's amazing what you can train a human body to do with a program like that. At the start I could barely run 3 or 4 miles but by completing the training I managed to develop my body (and my mind) to the point where I could run 26 miles or more several times in training, and was able to complete that distance on race day too.

I suspect sailing skills are very similar. You can't just listen to a coach, read a book, watch a video... and then go out and execute a new skill perfectly. You can't expect to be able to jump into a boat that demands some athletic ability and race all day with full effort if you haven't prepared physically for it. My guess is that it actually takes constant training several times a week over many years to reach a high level of racing skills in a physically demanding boat. That's why high school and college sailors become so good. They're training almost every afternoon and racing every weekend for the whole season.

It will be interesting to see what my program of 100 days of Laser sailing in one year accomplishes. If the intensity and length of my marathon program have any relevance to sailing I should be shooting for something more like 100 days in 6 months. Maybe next year?

Learning #2: Start slow and finish strong. The most important thing about running a marathon (at least for an aging unfit amateur like me) is not to start too fast. Every book, every website tells you the same thing. Hold back your pace in the first few miles. Save your energy. The last 6 miles are the hardest part of the race and if you start too fast you will "hit the wall" at around the 20-mile mark and the last 6 miles will be agonizing.

After hearing this, reading this, trying (and sometimes failing) to put this into practice, I've learned that it is true the hard way. When facing a long run there's something deep in my brain now that whispers to me, "Go slow. Pace yourself. It's going to be a long day. Save something for the last few miles. Hold back. Take it easy."

Now the length of time it takes me to run a marathon is roughly the same time I will spend on the water on a regatta day. Five hours give or take an hour or so either way. So when sailing out for the first race of a day of Laser racing that little voice is still there whispering its seductive message, "Take it easy. It's going to be a long day. Pace yourself. Don't go all out at the start."

Say what? This is of course exactly the wrong mental preparation for a sailboat race. The most critical parts of any race are the start and the first few minutes after the start. These are the minutes that will determine whether I will be racing with the pack of leaders or trying to avoid being the tail-end charlie. The start is when I need to be at the peak of my mental arousal and the first few minutes after the start are when I need to be working at 110% capacity, hiking as hard as I can, striving desperately to hold my lane and to work out ahead of the boats around me.

I know all that with the conscious, thinking part of my sailing brain. But my marathon running has trained something deep in my head to whisper those dangerous "go slow" messages at the start of every day and the start of every race.

You don't believe me? Hey, you have to admit it's a creative excuse for my normally dismal performance at Laser regattas. "Yeah, I didn't have a great regatta but that's because I'm really a marathon runner."

So what do you think? Have you had experience of cross-training in one sport that may have actually hurt your performance in your primary sport? Or, if nothing else, does one sport give you a great excuse for doing badly in another?

I wrote this post for my own Learning Experiences group writing project and also for the challenge from Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings, What I Learned From... Mashing It Up! The point about Robert's challenge was to write a WILF story addressing two or more topics from a list he provided. Well this post is definitely about Recreation, running a marathon is a bit like climbing a Mountain, and both the learnings are all about Time and how to use it.


Robert Hruzek said...

Interesting lesson learned, Tillerman - and I must say, I agree it's a wonderfully creative excuse!

Hey, thanks for jumping into our writing project, too. A well-told story and good lessons.

David said...

Hey, Tillerman, nice contribution to the project! As a former competitive runner your post caused me to dig back into my memory to see if what you say about the pace thing makes sense. I think the need for intensity at the start applies to both sports especially when starting in a crowd. You need to find a clear running lane to keep your stride, and you cannot afford to loose contact with the lead pack or you'll likely never see them again. I think the start "slow" finish strong may be better applied to a regatta as a whole rather than to a single race. Stay in contention by not making any huge mistakes. Then, push it and take bigger risks in the later races to secure the best position you can.

Off to watch the superbikes race today. I'll see what I can learn from that.


David said...

I did learn a few things from watching the 1000cc Superbikes. Make just one significant mistake, and you won't end up on the podium. Battling too hard to defend third place will allow the first two bikes to get so far ahead that you'll have no chance of catching them. Approach all turns at full speed, slow at the very last moment, hike hard and twist on full throttle coming out of the turn. A lapped bike caught between two fast bikes is called a "bumper" and can be used to great advantage by the lead bike. And finally, Suzukis are faster than Yamahas.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tilerman...sailing and running, two great hobbies that are fun and clear your mind too, I am imagining or you could not be such a clear, crisp writer, well done.
best, GLHOFFMAN, Minneapolis

Anonymous said...

at age nine my dad had a few years in which he sailed - he was rather fickle with his hobbies - it was on pistakee bay, and we spent many a summer weekend sailing - i remember a few things. I just loved it. I didn't quite know what to do in that judge the wind kindof way but if someone said grab that line i could and I never felt afraid. Once a very cute older boy asked me to crew and I did get a tad befuddled. He had awesome long eyelashes. My favorite memory was ice sailing - is that what it's called? I was young enough to just be wrapped up in a blanket and enjoy the weeeeeee of it.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes mother, it's all about the "weeeeeeeeeeee of it".

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