Peter Chng

Reflections on 10 years of running

The end of 2020 marks a full 10 years since I’ve been running consistently and recording the efforts on my Garmin GPS watch. With this year now finished I thought I’d take the time to reflect on how my motivations, aspirations, and goals for running have changed over this period of time, as well as what I’ve learned from the experiences I’ve been through.

I was originally going to download all my data from Garmin Connect and import it into a Jupyter Notebook for some basic data analysis and visualization, but decided to instead do a qualitative write up instead. (I may still do the data analysis in the future!)

Background

I ran my first marathon in 2008 and a few others after that. However, 2010 was the first year that I really wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I ran a race in the spring of that year, but missed the qualification time by ~3 minutes. I tried again in the fall, and managed to just barely qualify with a time of 3:10:46. (Back then, the qualification time for my age group was only 3:10:59; the times have since tightened significantly)

After this, I began to train seriously in preparation for the 2011 Boston Marathon. I purchased a GPS watch (the Garmin 305, a beast of a watch) and met some running friends in Toronto to train with. All of this provided the motivation for me to properly follow a training plan for the first time in my life.

Since I didn’t start using a GPS watch until late 2010, the following year was the first that I had a full year’s worth of running data.

2011

The Boston Marathon is held on Patriots’ Day (a holiday in Massachusetts), which is the third Monday of April. As such, most people begin training for the race in January, giving around 12-16 weeks of training time. As mentioned before, this was the first race that I followed a strict training plan for.

I would consider 2011 as the year that I really got serious about running. I bought a ton of books (Daniels’ Running Formula, Advanced Marathoning, and the tome-like Lore of Running, among others) and eagerly devoured them cover to cover as they arrived. I probably gained most of my book-smarts knowledge about running, training, and the like during this period of time.

My running performance also mirrored this: I ended up with a 3:07 at Boston, a faster time than before and even better when considering that Boston was a much tougher course than the one I had run 3:10 on the previous year. However at the time I wasn’t pleased with the result and signed up for another marathon in August, which I finished in 3:01. I still wasn’t happy though, as my real goal was to finish in under 3 hours, or to run a “sub-3”.

I also ran quite a number of shorter races. In fact, 2011 was probably the year that I ran the most number of races. These included four half marathons, the fastest of which was run in 1:20:51, and an 8K and 5K race, each of which I finished in second place. (These were low-key events with not that many other runners)

2012

Despite a great year of races in 2011, I started 2012 determined to run a sub-3. Looking back, I should have felt more proud of what I’d accomplished in 2011, but at the time, it didn’t seem like much if I wasn’t able to break 3 hours at the marathon. I resolved to increase my training distances figuring that this would help me attain a level of fitness needed to achieve my goals.

It was during this time that I was running my highest weekly distances, ever. I ran over 120 km one week, and over 110 km a few other times. I probably averaged over 100 km per week for 12 weeks. By the time the 2012 Boston Marathon came around, I was probably overtrained and likely wouldn’t have raced well. However, this didn’t matter: The 2012 Boston Marathon was one of the hottest on record. I remember being in the starting corrals and feeling hot and sweaty just standing there. I think it was around 24 C at the start and near 30 C at the end and sunny the entire time. (Most people would consider ideal temperatures to be between 5-10 C) With conditions this bad, almost everyone ran slower, so my 3:29 finishing time didn’t seem that bad.

However I still had the drive and motivation for a sub-3 and was determined not to let my training go to waste. I convinced myself that because I only ran a 3:29, my body could take the rigours of another marathon. (I also needed to get another Boston Qualifying (BQ) time for next year) I signed up for one less than 3 weeks later, and lo and behold, I finished in 3:01 again, an almost identical time to my best time the previous year. It wasn’t a sub-3, but at least it was a BQ!

I took some downtime, but the sub-3 goal was still pervasive in my thoughts. I ran a half marathon in the lead-up to my big fall race, and finished in 1:20:50 - exactly one second faster than my best half marathon in 2011. (I was a very consistent runner) By the time my fall marathon came around, I felt as ready as I’d ever felt. I ended up breaking 3 hours for the first time, crossing the finish line in 2:57:14. I remember feeling pretty darn proud after stopping my watch.

2013

The intense training of 2012 probably caught up to me as I developed an injury while training for the 2013 Boston Marathon. I still managed to run it, but finished in only 3:19 when otherwise it should have been a “fast” year because the weather conditions were great. I was pretty beat up and in quite a bit of pain at the end. I remember feeling completely dejected afterward, and didn’t really know where to go from here.

This was also the year of the Boston Marathon bombing. Thankfully, I had crossed the finish line over an hour before the attacks happened, so I was in no real danger. I did recall hearing a faint “boom” as I got back to my hotel, but didn’t think much of it. When I turned on the TV and saw the footage, I was in disbelief; at first I thought this was some sort of historical footage, as it was hard to come to grips with the devastation I saw on screen at a location I had been at not much more than a hour ago. I spent the rest of the day replying to text messages, emails, and voicemails from concerned family and friends.

I took a lot of downtime to recover and go to physiotherapy, and spent more time cross training on the elliptical to maintain cardio fitness. The first run back was less than 6 km at a pace much slower than I’d been used to, but at that point, I was happy to still be able to run. After a few weeks, I was able to resume (fairly quickly, in retrospect) normal training, and began focusing on training for the Chicago Marathon in October of that year. Although I still trained hard, it wasn’t ridiculously hard: No more 120 km weeks, and maybe just a few over 100 km. The results were good: I ran a 2:55:22 at Chicago (a fast course), and this time remains my personal best (PB) to this day.

My injury and subsequent recovery in 2012 gave the confidence that even if things got rough, being smart, taking downtime, and focusing on recovery can provide a viable path to success.

2014

By 2014, I was probably the most confident and comfortable I’d been with running yet. Having gone through several training cycles and seemingly discovered what worked, and what didn’t, I felt that I didn’t need to worry as much. I’d consistently improved over the past three years, and had made it through an injury, having recovered and set a new PB at the marathon distance afterward. I’d customized my training plan from one of the Pfitzinger ones (from Advanced Marathoning) based on what I knew to be my limits during training. I assumed these limits would not change, and so training for a marathon became rather routine: Follow the plan, run the race, and get the desired results. I began to focus on just the full marathon distance, and aimed to race no more than two marathons per year to avoid overtraining. (This is what most elite marathoners do)

This worked during the year. I ran the 2014 Boston Marathon in 3:04, my fastest Boston yet, and followed it up with another 2:55 in a fall marathon back in Toronto. I also ran the New York City Marathon (NYCM) this year, but since it was only two weeks after the Toronto one, I ran it mostly as a tourist and finished in a leisurely time. (I had previously gotten a guaranteed entry to NYCM for 2012, but that was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, and so I deferred to 2014)

2015

This year was more of the same “cookie cutter” approach to training and racing that I’d adopted in the previous year: Train hard, but not ridiculously hard. This mean taking the easy days easy, and the hard days hard. My typical training week would consist of a long run, a tempo/LT run (or intervals), and a hilly run. These would be the three “hard” workouts. The remaining two runs would be easy recovery efforts run far slower.

This consistent training again produced consistent results. I finished the 2015 Boston Marathon in 3:03 (my fastest Boston time) and ran a fall marathon in 2:56, less than a minute slower than my PB. I began to think every year would be like this.

2016

This was a year of changes. I developed a slight injury during training for Boston this year, and although I correctly reduced training, went to physiotherapy, and cross-trained, by the time I recovered there was not enough time to train before the race. Consequently, I was able to complete the race, but only in 3:18, a far cry from my previous times. I did end up running a 10K race not too long afterward, and that was my fastest time yet, in 38:10.

Secondly, I moved across the country to start a new job, quite a big event for me. Though I felt I was in pretty good fitness at the time, I didn’t want to take on the added stress of training for a marathon right after such a big change in my life. I ended up only running another 10K in the fall of this year, this time in 38:09, within one second of my previous 10K time. (Pretty consistent eh?)

2017

I encountered some pretty major setbacks this year. The new job was turning out to be a bit more stressful than I had expected and combined with trying to train for the 2017 Boston Marathon, I felt burned out. I wasn’t able to train to the same level as I had previously, and ended up getting injured trying to push through. Because I wasn’t training as hard as I was before, I incorrectly assumed that my inability to complete hard workouts was a lack of motivation, rather than being overwhelmed and burned out from the combination of job stress and training stress.

My performance at the Boston Marathon this year reflected this. I finished the race similarly to my injury-plagued one in 2013 - beat up, desolate, and in a ton of pain. It was my slowest marathon ever - 3:53 - even slower than the 3:52 I managed in the 2014 NYCM, where I “took it easy” since that was only two weeks after a marathon that I raced.

The rest of the year wasn’t great. I took a lot of time off, but the motivation to run and train hard never seemed to come back. I seriously considered stopping running (or at least racing) altogether, trying to justify it to myself by pointing out that I’d had some great accomplishments so far, having run seven Boston Marathons in a row. While the accomplishments were nothing to look down upon, this justification was more a way for myself to ignore the realities of growing older: I couldn’t expect to train the same way as I’d done years ago and expect the same results. I just wasn’t wise enough to know or accept this yet.

2018

I tried a few times to restart training again this year. Things on the work front had improved, and I believed that this would allow me to resume the level of training I had done only a few years ago, and I was again determined to run a BQ time. However, things didn’t turn out. Although I ran a half marathon earlier in the year in 1:30, I wasn’t able to translate that into the fitness needed to run a full.

Every time I started to ramp up training (like I had done before), I always got injured or burned out and my fitness decreased. I never got to a point where I was confident in being able to do the full marathon distance in a time I wanted, and consequently I began to dread the distance.

2019

I again started this year hopeful that things would be different - if I just tried harder. Initially, I got off to a good start, and had a great month of training in January. However, things quickly turned bad again. I was beginning to feel burned out, and then I injured my back somehow. I’m still not sure to this day how it happened, as one evening it started feeling stiff and the next day it was extremely painful. I was barely able to walk for a few days and was confined to bed most of the time.

I finally took this as a wake up call that I was getting older, and things weren’t the same anymore. I resolved to change things, and not just repeat the cycle trying to resume my previous level of training, failing, and then trying again. As I recovered, I spent several weeks just walking - I was happy to be able to just walk pain free at that point.

I resolved to train only very easily and see how things went. No more 3x hard workouts a week like I had used to do, since that didn’t seem to work anymore. For the first few months, I ran at only an easy pace and slowly built up on my distance. By May, I was feeling much stronger with this approach, and signed up for the SF Marathon, since this had been a race I’d wanted to do ever since moving out to the Bay Area. Because of SF’s climate, it’s probably the only large scale North American marathon that’s run at the end of July.

I finished in 3:33:59; not my fastest time by a long shot, but finishing this race really meant a lot to me. How I ran the race (second half not much slower than the first) and how I felt when I finished (didn’t feel completely beat up) had much more importance than the finishing time for my hopes and aspirations going forward. It meant that I could still train for and complete the full marathon distance, without injuring myself, as long as I did things smartly.

I tentatively began planning for a fall marathon to target a Boston Qualifying time. To prevent the same training mistakes as before, I made the following changes:

  1. I would do no more than 2 hard workouts a week (as opposed to the 3 I could do a few years ago).
  2. I would get more sleep and recovery.
  3. I would run a half marathon some time before and based on the result, decide whether to go for the BQ time or not.

I took the month of August easy, and started really training in September. There was a half marathon at the beginning of October in San Jose that I had signed up for. I figured if I could run it in 1:26:xx or less, then I’d be good to attempt a BQ time at a full marathon later in the year. The half marathon went well, and I was able to push hard at the end, finishing in 1:25:13 - ahead of my expectations. I was feeling great after this, and hadn’t felt this positive after a race in many years.

I had previously signed up for the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento. This was actually a deferral from 2018, when I had signed up but decided not to run. However, that race happens on the first weekend of December, which put it a little too close to my wife’s due date for our first baby. So I started looking for races a few weeks earlier. I found one in Bakersfield, about three weeks earlier in November. It required a bit of an adjustment in my training schedule, but I had found that arriving potentially undertrained is better than being overtrained.

I aimed for a sub-3 during this race, and ended up a little short with a 3:02:50. (You can read a full race report here) I was extremely pleased with this result. This was the first year I’d run a BQ time in over four years (the last time being in Toronto in 2015), and it showed I was still capable of turning out fast times as long as I listened to my body and adjusted my training schedule to suit the reality.

2020

I was feeling a little beat up and had a slight injury after the Bakersfield Marathon so I decided to take some time off. I resumed slowly running again in January but didn’t really have any plans. It didn’t really matter though, since once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all plans would have gone out the door anyways.

Once we were all ordered to work-from-home, I ended up running much more than usual to make up for the lack of physical activity normally incurred by being at the office. (Less walking) I talked about how my running changed after the pandemic started, and initially I increased my training and was turning out some pretty fast times during some tempo runs. This was all in hopes of maintaining fitness and being able to get back to racing once things got back to normal.

As you can probably tell, this was a bit ambitious and premature. As things dragged on, it became increasingly clear that things were not going to return to normal anytime soon, and trying to keep up race training was draining and pointless. I reduced my training load by running everything easier and my body felt better for it. I don’t think one should be constantly training; you should take a break between races/goals. You don’t have to completely stop running, but you should just run for the fun of it and not be concerned about paces or distances.

As we end this year, I’m still not sure when I will return to racing. Although I technically have a BQ time for the next running of the Boston Marathon (from Bakersfield in 2019), Boston was canceled in 2020 and the date for the 2021 race is still up in the air. So I’m not going to make any plans or start real training until things start to turn more normal.

What I’ve learned

If you’ve made it this far reading, you’ll realize that a lot of what I’ve learned has been through experience. Yes, I did read a lot about running early on, but I feel that the most valuable lessons have been through personal experiences. I believe this is because everyone is an individual, and this is very apparent when it comes to what works for each individual runner in terms of training, goals, and motivation.

If I had to summarize the most important things I’ve learned, they would be:

  1. Research and look into as many training plans as you can, but don’t stick to any one religiously.
    It’s more important to understand the reason why a training plan has you doing certain workouts (if the training plan doesn’t go into that, it’s not very useful), rather than trying to hit every single workout. Also, you should take what you’ve learned and adapt it into a training plan that works for you, considering your job and life commitments, which are often overlooked. Very few of us can afford to dedicate our lives to training.

  2. Listen to your body and adapt as it changes
    You ignore your body and its warning signs at your own peril. When you’re young, you can ignore proper sleep, proper eating, and hammer each workout super hard, and generally, you’ll still be able to benefit from training this way. As you get older, your margin for error grows smaller. You need to listen to your body, and adapt your training plan as your body gives you feedback. Think of it as a feedback cycle: You provide inputs to your body (food, rest, and training) and you should monitor how your body responds and whether any of those inputs need to be altered. If you don’t, and blindly try to push through, eventually things will go wrong, either in the form of burnout or injury.

    This means recognizing that your capacity for training will go down as you get older, and updating your training plans accordingly. It also means being smart, not pushing through an injury. Don’t be afraid to cross train (elliptical, stationary bike) when needed to reduce impact, even if these activities may be boring compared to running.

    Lastly, stress is not just training stress. Overall stress is the combination of work stress, life stress, and training stress. All of these will reduce your capacity to train, and so if you’re going through a particularly stressful period in life, you should reduce your training accordingly.

  3. Most of your running should be easy; take easy days easy, and hard days hard
    This is basically the hard-easy principle, or the principle of supercompensation. Training hard actually doesn’t build fitness on its own (this is why you’re tired after a tough workout), but actually requires a period of rest and recovery so that your body can come back stronger. This is why you must take easy days easy - not only so that you have the energy to go hard on a hard day, but also so that your body can have a chance to improve. For more on training intensity, see this Fellrnr article.

    You should also expand this principle into taking downtime after races. Training for a marathon takes a lot of effort. After that race, you should rest and recover. This doesn’t mean you have to stop running completely, but it does mean you shouldn’t worry about distance or pace until you feel like you’re ready, both mentally and physically.

  4. Don’t be too hard on yourself
    You’re going to miss important training runs or fail to hit your goals at some point in time, so it’s best to learn how to deal with this. I think that serious runners have a tendancy to overdo things and beat themselves up for missing a workout or falling behind the pace during a race, and certainly I can understand this. However, I think it’s counter-productive. Motivation is supposed to be a positive thing, not something that makes you feel bad.

    As the years have gone by, I have gotten more mellow. Though I still take races seriously and will do all I can to prepare for one, it’s not a huge defeat if things don’t go as planned. Finding the right balance between running and the rest of life is probably just as important as running itself.

  5. There will be ups and downs
    This is kind of a cliché but nonetheless it’s true. Looking back, I was injured about one out of every three years. Each time, I felt like I’d never be able to make it back, but by taking things easy, going to physiotherapy when necessary, and resuming slowly, I was able to come back, and in most cases faster. These setbacks made me appreciate my subsequent accomplishments much more.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed my reflections.