The 20 miler.
In many marathon training programs, this is the farthest you will run before race day. Some wonder how you can expect to run 26.2 miles on race day if you have never done it in training. The theory is that the 'rest' of the taper weeks, combined with the energy and excitement of race day, will carry you through those additional miles.
The prevailing thought is that if you go farther than 20 miles in training, that the risk of injury outweighs any training benefit gained in those additional miles. However, there are plans like the Jeff Galloway run/walk program that take you to 23, 26 or even 30 miles in training. The other Sean has put in a couple of 29 milers in his ramp up to the marathon this time around, and I may up my mileage in the future. But I have always erred on the safe side, preferring to be a bit under, rather than over-trained.
Even though they know I have run a few marathons, people are often amazed when I tell them I just ran 20 miles. It is harder in some ways - no support crew handing you drinks, no one cheering you on as your energy flags, no other runners beside you sharing your challenge, and no medal at the finish line. Just you alone on the road with your iPod, carrying whatever fluids and fuel you might need. As I have said before, the marathon itself is almost the reward. The real work is the hundreds of miles you put in during the months leading up to the race, where you are the only one keeping yourself honest.
This time around, the plan calls for two 20 mile long runs, at two and four weeks before the marathon, and yesterday was the first 20 miler. Normally you are supposed to run at a pace slower than your goal time (somewhere between :30 to 1:30 slower per mile). The long run is more about the miles than the pace, and you are training both your body and mind for the hours spent on the road. I have never been disciplined enough to go that much slower, and since I am still trying to dial in a time goal for Long Beach, I decided to run without looking at the clock (much).
The day started out wondrously foggy and the temperatures were almost cool. I chose a relatively flat route with some hills in the beginning, and a few overpasses to climb toward the end. The sun broke through at around mile 11, but I was able to find a couple of drinking fountains where I could wet down my hair to stay cool. There were a number of other runners out on the roads, some who I saw multiple times. They may have wondered, as I did, "how far are they going today, and what are they training for?"
I would occasionally check my pace when it felt particularly slow or fast, but I did not keep tabs on how I was doing overall. I felt pretty good during the run, though my calves were tight for the last four miles or so. When I ran past my truck for the third time, I was at 19.4 miles, so I had to keep going. This always seems to be the toughest part, to pass by what you thought was the finish line to get in that partial mile. Physically, that additional half mile is probably meaningless, but continuing on when you thought you were finished strengthens your mental muscle.
I ended up finishing in 2:56:28 which translates to a 8:49 per mile pace. This is just 2 seconds over the marathon pace called out in my training, so this gives me a boost of confidence for the marathon. I still don't have a clear goal time, but yesterday's run may make me aim a litter higher. Having this run under my belt, I will probably take it a little easier during the 20 miler two weeks before race day. Better to be rested, and trust the interval training to produce the speed I am hoping for.