Pushing The Limits

Just what is it exactly that compels us to run? And by that I mean not just going out for a jog, but racing as fast as your body will allow.  What is it that drives us to train and race our hardest when there’s not much more to gain than personal satisfaction? For some it may be the desire to chase a paycheck, or to collect various trinkets (shirts, medals, trophies), or even to impress the opposite sex. For others it may be the innate desire to test the physical limits of the human body.

If you find yourself in the latter group then you must be well acquainted with The Line by now. The line is your friend, the warning track trying to prevent you from going too far (it’s often colored red). But it can also be your enemy. Hell hath no fury like a line crossed! Whichever way you choose to describe it (crossing the line, going into the red, all balls no brains), you know you must respect it. Not respecting this line is when people tend to get into trouble.

Finding the right balance, being able to walk that fine line, is key to getting the most out of your potential. Some people have built-in safety measures to help them achieve this balance: only run six days a week, take X amount of time off between big races, only do hard workouts every couple of days.  The list is runner specific.

But that leaves the question of knowing when to push it to the next level. If you don’t roll the dice, how are you going to know? In purposely pushing our limits we discover things about ourselves that were previously unknown. It’s what we learn in these situations that propel us to bigger and better things.

Take the case of Dan Giacalone, for example. Dan’s marathon PR was 3:20:48.  He ran that up in Buffalo back in 2008. Try as he might, luck has not been on Dan’s side over the last few years. In 2009 he DNF’d at Baystate, but as quite a few of you may recall, that was the year where it was run in snow and freezing rain.

Giacalone was ready to roll heading into the Maine Marathon on September 30, 2012, but once again Mother Nature would thwart his plans. “I felt like I was in great shape to run at least a sub-3:00 marathon, but about a mile into the race it started to rain and kept getting heavier and heavier, for the next 3 hours.” Dan ended up running a 3:08:08, which was a big PR, but still far short of what he knew he was capable of running.

“In all seriousness, after a warm shower shortly after finishing the race, it barely felt like I had run at all,” said Dan.  Plenty of people have been in this situation, but not necessarily after running a big PR in a marathon. There isn’t exactly a playbook to go to in this scenario, so what do you do?

Dan in action during the Savannah Marathon (courtesy of Raelee Giacalone)

The cautious approach would be to quit while you’re ahead, recover, then start the whole training cycle again. Pros: face the next race rested, stronger, and with the confidence of knowing how well you ran in miserable conditions. Cons: risk getting injured in the next training cycle, could face even worse weather in the next race, or an asteroid destroys Earth.

The window of opportunity for your best shot isn’t that big when the training is meant to get you into peak shape for a specific race. You need to make the most of those opportunities when they present themselves.

With that in mind, Dan confidently decided to race again soon after. Dan was aware enough to hear what his body was telling him, smart enough to know how to interpret it, and courageous enough to go for it. He was knocking on the door of a BQ and was determined to get it.

The Savannah Marathon was picked as the target for a couple of reasons: 1) it was at least thirty days after Maine (34 to be exact), and 2) it gave him a much better chance of racing in warmer conditions. Dan continued: “I was pissed…I was in shape, but I don’t run well competitively if I’m cold.” Cold would not be a problem in Georgia, not this time! It was a balmy 55 degrees at the start and into the 70’s by the time he finished.

The weather isn’t the only thing to worry about though. How do you stay in shape in between races? You’ve already tapered for the target race, but with only another four weeks in between marathons, it’s too long to continue the taper and not long enough to ramp the intensity up much. Dan was getting in 50-60 miles per week leading up to Maine, but due to other obligations he was only able to manage about 30 per week in between the races.

Giacalone couldn’t get in the volume he would’ve liked, so to keep the legs fresh he employed a somewhat unorthodox training schedule. During the week he was only able to run one or two days of light mileage, plus another day of 5 x 800m repeats. The weekends were where the bulk of his work was done, and Dan got in 13-16 miles each day.

Of course it never hurts to have some help, and the Greenspan Boys (Adam and Eric) proved to be a big help in both training and race strategy. They were there to get Dan through his high mileage weekends, and also for the occasional weekday run. There was also the run to the top of the Blue Hills during Hurricane Sandy, which might be worthy of its own story in the next issue. Maybe this was the climatic ending to his Rocky IV-style training montage. But what did he shout at the top of the mountain? Drago wouldn’t be appropriate, so the smart money’s on ‘SAVANNNNNNAH!’

Together, the three of them came up with a plan for Savannah: go out at a steady 6:40’s clip and bank energy. In past races Dan would go out quicker and try to bank time. Dan was only 3 minutes off the BQ, which isn’t an outrageous goal under normal circumstances. But 2 marathons in a month isn’t a normal circumstance, so the race day strategy was adjusted.

The end result: Giacalone ran a 3:03:58 and punched his ticket to the 2014 Boston Marathon. Of the effort, Dan said “I wanted to get the BQ monkey off my back and no matter how I did it, it was going to get done in Savannah.” You have to admire the focus and determination, especially in uncharted waters. To run a PR is to go to a place where you haven’t exactly been before. To do it under unfamiliar circumstances (prep time and geographical location) as well, makes it that much more impressive.

Dan challenged his limits and found that he could be pushed quite hard without redlining into an epic bonk. It doesn’t always work out this way, but how will you know if you never try?

This originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Level Renner, which was published on November 12, 2012.

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About ejnshow

Runner. Writer. Lover of the absurd. Hobbies include bringing all three of these elements together.

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