I am starting to believe.
My confidence was faltering about 14 miles into Sunday's evening run, when I logged my slowest mile at 11:29 -- more than a minute slower than my goal pace. I had four more miles to go.
My split at the nine-mile turnaround mark was a solid 10:13 mile pace, but I was feeling exhausted after a strong nine miles on Saturday. I stopped looking at my watch a couple miles later. My companion for the evening looked at the bike computer and told me I had slowed down. I wasn't sure I had a response, but I tried to pick up my speed.
My next miles were 10:28 and 10:37 -- better, but not in the 10:17 range I wanted to hit (based off the McMillan Calculator).
It was getting dark. There was more light from the fireflies than from the night skies. I felt twinges in my plantar fascia, lactic acid in my quads, chafing between my thighs, and shortness of breath. I thought about how nice it would be to stop and walk, to slow down. Then my mind drifted to negative splits.
Back in June, I declared my goal for the Akron Marathon was to break four hours by running negative splits. I thought I could run a negative split race last year at the Towpath Marathon, but FAILED. However, the experience taught me a lot about the strategy.
I decided then that the negative split merited a second chance, but I had do more than choose to give it a try a mere two weeks before the marathon. I had to train with the approach in mind from the onset. Building mental strength is just as important as the running itself.
Now, I focus on negative splits for every long run and every run the day before my long run if it's supposed to be at race pace (i.e., two weeks on, one week easy). The results have been pretty positive. And I don't mean positive splits. I've nailed some strong negative splits with some acceptable even splits mixed in. Success or failure, the strategy has helped me find reserve energy at the end of a long run.
I wasn't sure I could pull off a negative split last night. Some of my early miles were a bit faster than planned. When I slogged through that 14th mile, I thought, Just make it a good final three miles. Finish strong.
Somewhere during the next two miles I wondered if I could finish my run in less than three hours. For some reason, that lit my fire. Though it doesn't show in the 16th mile split (10:37), my effort increased. I stopped talking, straightened my back, and settled into my rhythm, breathing in-in-in, out-out-out with my footfalls.
The darkness made the run a bit treacherous, as it became difficult to see the Towpath. In addition to upping my pace, I had to lift my knees more to avoid tripping over some uneven footing. I kept asking my legs for more, and the energy was there.
I passed the next mile marker. Two miles to go. I was flying. The fireflies streamed past like telescoping light beams as if I had just said, "Ludicrous speed, go!"
Every rise in the trail ahead looked like the last rise before the parking area. I kept gunning ahead, hammering toward the finish. When I finally did climb that last rise, I was running all out. The end of the run made me feel like I had just finished a race. I wanted to raise my arms in victory. I wanted to shout, "Yes, I did it!"
But I hadn't done it.
I didn't finish in less than three hours. I didn't even pull off a negative split. My second half split was 50 seconds slower than the first. But my final miles were 9:32 and 8:34. I've run negative splits before, but I've never had this feeling at the end of such a long run. I felt magnificent.
I felt like I left everything I had on the trail, but I still had acceleration in reserve after 15 miles (and the nine miles at 9:18 pace the day before). If nothing else, I truly believe in the possibility that running a negative split at Akron is possible. Hope is a powerful thing.
Training for a marathon can be a solitary experience. It can be tough to keep soldiering on when those long runs start clocking in at two and three hours. A great way to enjoy good company and stay on target is to run with a bike enthusiast who is willing to ride at your pace. The friendly encouragement in the late miles is invaluable, even when all you can do is grunt a "yuh" or "thanx" in response.
See? I'm not all anti-bicycles.