What not to do with all that running data

A few years ago when I was starting my grad program, I was taking notes on something my professor was saying. She gestured to my lines and lines of notes and said, "You need to start taking notes on graph paper." She meant that I needed to start training myself to think in terms of formulas and graphs, not sentences of words, the way I'd been making sense of information my whole life.

Years later, I've really grown to like thinking this way. Beyond my career, envisioning information in terms of growth curves and causal relationships is just a fun and different way to make sense of complex information.

Unsurprisingly, I've directed the full force & intensity of these inclinations toward any and all data available during the course of marathon training. Trying to answer what I feel should be a simple question ("What is my goal marathon pace?") has turned into a terrific distraction and a wonderfully difficult puzzle.

On Sunday I ran my 20-miler in an av. pace of 9:20, while my last long run paces have been around 9:45 or 9:55. I wasn't pushing for this pace; I just ran by effort, like I always do. Once home, I couldn't help myself. I was dying to know, "WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? "

The sheer number of variables indicate the complexity, and therefore difficulty, of predicting a marathon time (not to mention actually running a marathon).  

Some of them are observed just once: 

  • Temperature on race day
  • Wind on race day
  • "Fast" course? 
  • Someone to use a pacer
  • Injuries occurring on race day
  • Stomach issues
  • Discomfort caused by clothing or gear
  • Confidence
  • VO2 max
  • Lactic threshold
  • Resting heart rate
  • Weight
  • % slow-twitch muscle fibers.

And others are observed over time, and also have a cumulative effect:

  • Miles run per week
  • Number of long runs
  • Longest long run
  • "Race pace" miles
  • Number of previous marathons
  • Years of running experience

And so on. You get the idea! 

For guidance, I pored over the major pace predictor workouts and calculators: Yasso 800s, Galloway's Magic Mile, the McMillan Calculator, and the old "double your half marathon time and add 5-10 minutes" thing.

The McMillan Calculator (and most of these other things) is biased toward people who run mega miles per week (70+). Yours truly, who is running 35-45mpw and passing out every night exhausted, likely won't be able to hit my McMillan "equivalent effort" for the marathon because I simply don't run enough miles to develop the kind of endurance for the distance. For most of us regular-mileage runners, most of these prediction methods are more accurate at shorter distances and break down at long distances. This is because VO2 max is more important for 5ks and 10ks, while overall running volume (and the physiological adaptions to endurance running that result) is more important for the marathon.

I know that there's a growing chorus of people who disagree with this completely -- who say you don't need to run a lot of miles to get faster at the marathon. I haven't done enough reading to feel like I understand this approach. But I'm very intrigued by this, because I don't see my body or my lifestyle adapting to running 70+ mpw any time soon. If this is true, I may actually consider running a second marathon sometime in the future, 

Other people are really into using a recent 10k race as a marathon predictor. (Gee, how interesting that I just randomly happened on this, after my 10k PR last week...):

"There is a school of thought that says that a 10k race is the best choice of a baseline race. Personally, I like it as a marathon time predictor. In fact, it’s the only race distance I have ever used as a baseline race. Why 10k? After all, it’s just 3.1 miles longer than a 5k; it’s less than half the distance of a half marathon; and it’s less than a fourth the distance of a marathon. It is an excellent baseline race for marathon prediction simply because it’s essentially a threshold race and LT is one of the most important physiological factors in determining marathon ability." (via Hill Runner).


The deeper I get into reading about this, the more I get the unpleasant sensation that I'm tumbling down a rabbit hole. "This": reading about methodology and sample sizes and prediction. Unfortunately, I find myself making a common mistake: just because I'm analyzing the analyzable data, doesn't mean I have the right, good, or important information. And while I'm terribly competitive and goal-oriented and I want the best possible measures so I can improve, I do think that an over-emphasis on that which is measurable can have a corrupting influence on running, my special relaxing activity, the stress-relieving part of my life. 

On Thursday I went out for 9 soggy trail miles with my dog, and toward the end I became aware that the pine needles on the ground had completely muted our footsteps. We were running through mist ("mist" if you're feeling romantic, "disgusting humidity" if you're not.) Ahead of me, I saw a single golden leaf suspended at eye level in the middle of the path. I had to look very closely to see it was attached to a strand from a spider. I became deliriously happy at this and thought about it the whole way home -- how it was just there, waiting in the middle of the path for someone to see it, and that person was me, because I was out running. 

I think I'm not alone in feeling that protecting that sense of wonder and joy at being active and outdoors is the thing I care about the most in my running -- the sense that running will always be there for me when I need it, that however I'm running at the time is right and good. These things aren't necessarily incompatible with my time-based running goals, but they easily become sidelined by the more tangible things: splits and watch beeps and elevation charts and other in-your-face things demanding to be analyzed. 

To become preoccupied with my training numbers simply because they're there is a maladaptation of a way of thinking that's best employed for different, more useful (even important!) pursuits. And, it feels like a betrayal of the best parts of running.

I've been doing all of my long runs without music and it's given me a lot of time to think about all of the other, non-measurable stuff: like how fun it is to be paced by my dog, and the huge patch of neon-orange poisonous mushrooms I saw on the Al Buehler on Sunday.

And questions like: How will it feel to run through my old spectating spot (135 & 5th) and hear the gospel choirs there? And when I see James in the crowd and old friends along the course? What will it feel like to run a marathon on the same streets that gave me my first tentative running steps when I first imagined maybe I could try this thing I was afraid of? How is this like all the other things I have tried that I've been afraid of -- or things I am afraid of, but haven't yet tried? And what awaits me on the other side of that finish line?