May 12, 2010

Marathoner's guide to a Murphy's Law universe (with congrats to Valerie Bertinelli)

"Mom, you're overthinking this," said Dana, as I debated whether to pack the strawberry or tangerine PowerGel -- their caffeine content differs -- in the fuel belt I was readying for last month's Boston Marathon.

"I think not," I replied, and packed both.

I've been a middle-of-the-pack marathoner for a lot of years, and Murphy's Law seems to govern whenever I go into training. So I've developed a guide to help me survive the trip from training to the starting line. (For me, the starting line is always the goal. If I make it there, I'll finish.)

My Top Ten Rules of the Road:

Rule #1: Hide the razor. If you shave your legs before an important long run you will cut the back of your ankle open at exactly the spot where your sneaker rubs the skin and you will lose a week of training.

Rule #2: Eat like Joanie. If you read an article in which Joan Benoit Samuelson remarks that chickpeas are part of her training diet, eat a can of chickpeas for lunch on the day before every run exceeding 10 miles.

Rule #3: Love your legumes. Campbell's baked beans make an excellent power breakfast before a long run when eaten exactly 90 minutes before commencing running, so carry a pop-top can of these beans and a plastic spoon with you on marathon morning and shrug off the looks from the bagel-eating runners all around you. If someone, say a preening, no-body-fat, 30-year-old male says, smirkily, "I hope I won't be running behind you," tell him a) you've heard that a million times and b) you'll try to remember to slow down so he can get ahead of you.

Rule #4: Beware the bathroom. As marathon time nears, step slowly and carefully over the metal door jam at the bottom of your shower stall. Otherwise, you will bash your toe into the metal bar and you will lose a week of training.

Rule #5: Trust no one. Even though race organizers promise plenty of lemon-lime flavored Gatorade along the course, carry your own supply in your fuel belt. Otherwise, one or more of these things will happen: a) only water is offered until mile 7, about two miles after your body's used to having its first Gatorade sips b) the Gatorade is so watered-down that it bears little resemblance to the liquid you've used in training, and your body and mind freak out c) those little cups at the Gatorade stops are filled so meagerly that you don't get enough or d) they run out of Gatorade by the time you hit the final miles, leaving only water, which is not fuel.

Rule #6: Go it alone. Some small marathons have "pace group leaders" on the course. Do not run with these people. There will be much chit-chatting in the early miles, which saps energy and ensures that the race's second half, if not the last two-thirds, will be a sad and sorry few hours. Avoid anyone with placards, paddles or balloons with pace times on them and the people that move with them.

Rule #7: Crank the tunes. Ignore all attempts to dissuade you from running with headphones. There are reasons why God and Steve Jobs invented the iPod. Using 26 miles of music to motivate and soothe so your mind and body hurt less is one of the best.

Rule #8: Ditch the down dogs: Stay away from yoga class the week before the marathon or an important long run. Otherwise, you will pull your back out and lose a week of training. Or miss your marathon.

Rule #9: Sleep, then sleep again: Go to bed early the five nights before the marathon. Nerves will make sleep the night before and the night before the night before impossible, so get your rest before that and before that. Knowing you've made deposits to the rest bank helps avoid a freakout on race day eve, guaranteed to be a sleepless night.

Rule #10: Turn up the heat. In the days before the marathon, unless you live in the desert or tropics, keep your furnace humming and wear layers of clothing and a hat around the house. Otherwise, you'll get sick. Then your body will spend its energy staying warm and getting better, and you'll have nothing left for the marathon. If your family or roommates protest, "It's like a sauna in here," tell them to chill and put on a bathing suit until your race is over.

I stuck to my rulebook and had a good race at this year's Boston. Not a personal best, but a decent performance.

And I beat Valerie Bertinelli, to whom I extend a major shout-out. Nice going, Val. A personal trainer and the weighty resources of Jenny Craig may have helped get Valerie out there in the first place, but nobody ran the race for her. She did it herself, one step at a time. Congratulations.

I wonder if Val has a rulebook. I wonder if Jenny Craig lets her eat baked beans and chickpeas.