Monday, February 15, 2010

The Power of Negative Thinking

Racing has always been a bit of a hit or miss proposition for me. Even though, going into a race, I’m confident that I’ve adequately prepared myself to run well, some results tend to be better than others. While it may be impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons for failure, when I take a look back at my best racing performances, there seems to be one consistent reason for success: “negative splits”.

For those who don’t know, running negative splits means running slower early miles and faster later miles. As a result, your split times descend, or move in a “negative” direction, as the run progresses. The theory is that starting slow allows your muscle cells to warm up and take on huge volumes of oxygen before the really hard work begins, attenuating anaerobic metabolism and spiking fatigue-resisting aerobic energy production. Simply put, running negative splits allows your engine to warm sufficiently before shifting into overdrive! 


I had been vaguely aware of the concept of negative splitting for years, but to trust that running slower early miles in a race will lead to the promise of faster finishing miles was something I just couldn’t accept. As a marathoner, who has logged many long and lonely hours of training, the last thing I wanted to do on race day was get to the starting line and run slower than I thought I was capable of. So as a result, my traditional marathon race strategy was to start running at marathon goal pace and try to hold it for 26.2 miles. Of course, my traditional marathon result was to hit the wall around mile 21 and limp to the finish. Hoping I didn’t lose too much time during my death march. So, after years of beating my head against the wall, I vowed to do things differently and turn my next marathon into a full-fledged, negative splitting experiment!

Since I have very little patience, and almost no restraint, it was obvious that I required extensive negative split practice in order to break my racing habits of old. Therefore, I structured all my training towards starting slow and building into each run. My long runs became a series of 4 mile segments, and I concentrated on running each piece faster than the previous. My daily runs became out and back courses, and I worked on taking less time to run back than it took to run out. And finally, my Wednesday track workouts became speedy step-downs, and I would attempt to run each repeat a little quicker than the one before. For the most part, this revamped regimen worked quite well. Although, I have to admit, starting a set of 12x400 repeats too fast, and then having to pick it up, did have me re-evaluating my experiment. Not to mention my sanity. But, finishing my 20 mile runs feeling strong certainly renewed my confidence in the plan and gave me peace of mind to put my faith into running with restraint.

My plan for race day was simple. I broke the 26.2 mile race into three 8 mile segments, with a 2 mile warm up at the beginning and a .2 mile “sprint” at the end. The first 8 mile segment was to be run slower than goal pace, the second was to be run at goal pace, and God willing, the last was to be run faster than goal pace. I also decided to keep track of my pace in 4 mile increments, or half of an 8 mile segment. Doing that would help me avoid the pacing yo-yo that sometimes occurs from mile to mile when markers are incorrect or hills are included. So when race day arrived, I felt comfortable with my preparations and confident that my experiment could work, if I allowed it to. 
As the race began, I started out slowly, and let the other runners go out too fast. Today they went without me. Today was going to be different. I used the first two miles as an opportunity to enjoy the experience, soak up the atmosphere and savor the beautiful fall weather. At the two mile mark I checked my watch. Ok, good, nice beginning now pick it up just a little bit. At the 10 mile mark I was right under where I wanted to be, felt smooth and kicked it up to goal pace. At the 18 mile mark it was decision time. I could either hold my pace, run comfortably until the end, and maybe PR or I could pick it up again. I felt strong and knew that this was my day, so I decided to kick it into overdrive. It was there that the race began for me. At mile 18 it was ON. Because of my training, I had expected to run well at this point. What I didn’t expect, was the extra rush of adrenaline as I caught up to, and eventually passed, the runners in front of me. It became like a game that kept me focused on the goal immediately ahead instead of on the finish line and the pain I was starting to feel.

When the final bridge came into view, I knew I had done it. My negative splitting experiment had actually worked. This was truly a breakthrough race for me. I’d tried for years to run under 3:10:00 since it’s the lowest Boston qualifying time. But, up until now, the 3:13:28 at last year’s Clarence DeMar was my personal best. This year’s BayState result of 3:07:47 bested that mark by nearly 6 full minutes. It was, without a doubt, the best race I’ve ever run. But, now that I’ve finally achieved my long sought after 3:10, I find myself at a crossroads. Should I quit now and bask in the fading glow of my accomplishment, or should I try to lower my marathon time even more? Can I turn a negative split into a positive performance, once again? Is sub-3:00 realistic? I guess there are two things I’ve learned during this experience. The first is, if the Red Sox can win the World Series, anything is possible. The second is, if someone asks for advice on improving their race results I’ll just tell them to “Go Negative”.

2004 BayState Results:
1&2 14:58 (7:29)                                                      
3-6 29:36 (7:24)
7-10 29:12 (7:19)
11-14 28:35 (7:08)
15-18 28:20 (7:05)
19-22 27:44 (6:56)                                                      
23-26 27:27 (6:52)                                                    
26.2 1:57 (long)

First Half:
1:36:00 (7:19)
Second Half:
1:31:47 (7:00)
3:07:47 (7:10)

Good for 40th place overall and only 32 places & 14 minutes behind the incredible 2:53:24 of “frosh phenom” Jon Alizio!

1 comment:

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