Marathon and Beyond


by Annette Pierce

Past 40, Reverted to Recreational Runner, Can I Make the Olympic Marathon Trials? Part 1.

© 2003 42K(+) Press, Inc.

Editorís note: A decade ago, Annette Pierce ran sub-2:50 marathons. Then she took time off to start a family. At age 41, sheís decided to make a comeback: first a sub-3:00 hour marathon, later a qualification race for the 2004 U.S. Womenís Marathon Trials. Annette will be sharing her comeback story with M&B readers throughout 2003. Here is Part 1.

Iím 41, have been a couch potato for the past seven years, and plan to run a sub-3:00 marathon in June.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Well, OK, maybe it is. But Iím not coming to it totally from left field. I have run 20 or so marathons, nearly all under 3:10, six or seven at 2:52 or better, and have a PR of 2:45. So at least I have some idea of what it will take to get there. Trouble is, I havenít trained regularly or raced for seven years. In fact, for most of the past three years, I havenít logged more than 10 miles in a week, and there have been solid months with no activity at all.

So why did I decide to get off the couch? Iím embarrassed to admit this, but it all started as a quest to zip my favorite pants. Gap flat-front khakis-nothing special, but Iíve been unable to wear them now for several years. They hang in my closet, taunting me. I keep toying with the idea of getting rid of them and buying a bigger size. But Iím stubborn (and a cheapskate), and I refuse to believe this jelly belly is my lot in life now that Iím over 40.

I tried cutting back on calories, but that just made me cranky. So the last week of June, just in time for the heat and humidity of a midwestern summer, I decided to get my sorry self off the sofa and out the door. The idea was to run for fitness and gut control, nothing more. Iíve had my day-ran in college, then received free equipment, travel, and pampering from a couple of sponsors. I lived and breathed training and racing, from high school until my mid-30s. Now Iím the mom of Joe, five, and Luisa, two. Iím married to Steve and have an old fixer-upper with a mortgage, and a part-time job-a life! I really just need the gut control.

But within a couple of weeks, I was running five days a week and had slowly started building up a Sunday long run. I was in the middle of an 11-miler out on the section roads in northeast Kansas when, apparently hopped up on endorphins, I decided I was going to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials. During my glory days I had met the qualifying standard several times but never during the qualifying window. I decided it would be cool to toe the line as a masters runner and the mother of two.

Once the idea popped into my head and I couldnít dislodge it, I started weighing the pros and cons of such an absurd endeavor:

  • After a seven-year layoff, I have fresh legs. / After seven years, my legs are out of shape.

  • Iím only 10 pounds over my previous racing weight. / This may very well be my new racing weight.

  • Iíve always been patient in racing and training. / A little aggressiveness might be called for.

  • Of 20 or so marathons that I trained for properly, only one was a painful disaster; the others were relatively easy. / But that was 10 years, two babies, one wedding, five moves, and three jobs-a lifetime ago!

  • Racing and training are no longer life or death pursuits; other things are much more important so now I wonít obsess and stress out. / Racing and training are no longer life or death pursuits; other things are much more important. Will I really go through with this?

  • I have 20 years of running and racing experience. / Good gawd! 20 years? Now I feel old.

    Still under the influence of my runnerís high, I e-mailed a former training partner, Michele McFadden, in Columbia, Missouri:

    Hey Michele!

    How many short weeks ago was it when I told you that you were insane for thinking about a marathon?

    Iíve run four 25-mile weeks and one 11-mile long run, and suddenly I think Iím going to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials! My top speed so far is an 8:30 pace. The qualifying time is sub-2:48. What makes us this way?

    Anyway, the plan is to try to qualify at Grandmaís in June 2003. Then again in the winter if I have to. I didnít think I had an obsessive-compulsive streak, but either I donít run at all or Iím trying to qualify for the dadgum Olympic Trials! There hasnít been much in between. So . . . are you in!?

    Her response:

    Personally, I think we could both run 6:30 pace no problem. The sub- 2:48 would probably kill me, but it would be fun to die trying, so count me in! We could even plan to meet in Kansas City on weekends for long runs and tempos during the training phase.

    Right now Iím training for two 10Ks in October. Why donít you come and run the womenís 10K on October 6 with me?! We could spend the weekend scheming about our training plan and wagering who could actually fit into their bun huggers by marathon day.

    Uh-oh. I had gone public. Now I was committed. It was time to come up with a plan. In true girlfriend fashion, I consulted Michele, a 2:51 marathoner, for training advice first. In the late í80s, she and I trained together when we both lived in Kansas City. How could I have forgotten what a nut she is? At five feet two and 100 pounds, she seems harmless. But sheís a Type A muscular bundle of energy who is always busy-throwing dinner parties for 12, organic gardening, or laying a brick sidewalk. She trains way harder than I do.

    Sheís obsessed with tempo runs, and Iím not talking about 30 minutes in the middle of an eight-miler. Last month she ran a nine-miler at 5:00 a.m. in the dark during a thunderstorm along a flooded trail in less than an hour. And I was looking to her for advice? I hate tempo runs. After we traded e-mails for a couple of weeks, it became clear that our views on proper marathon training were not aligned. I believe in lots of long runs; she runs three or four grudgingly. However, we agree that good food, good friends, and beer will be absolutely essential.

    Next I tried the Internet. Egad! Thereís a lot of stuff out there. I found advice for beginners wanting only to survive a first marathon and plans for runners with an established base. I found lists of immutable truths for marathoning, how to calculate training pace, racing pace, and project finishing times, and all kinds of 12-week, 15-week, and 18-week programs. The good news is that I rediscovered some stuff I had forgotten-running hills as a transition to speed work and using energy gels and bars to replenish during and after a long run. The bad news is that I found no plans for getting from zero to sub-3:00 in 12 to 18 months.

    So I called Benji Durden, of Boulder, Colorado, a former 2:09 marathoner turned coach. Durden, who coached Kim Jones to a 2:26, has developed a 15-week marathon training program that seems sound. After talking to him about what it would take to reach my goal, I came to the realization that Iím not yet training for a marathon. Iím still trying to get to the point where one of these programs will make sense.

    ďThe major pitfall is trying to do too much, not being patient enough. And remember, youíre not the athlete you used to be,Ē Durden said. Heavy sigh.

    But I feel like my old self. Although I didnít miss running at all during those seven sedentary years, it turns out that deep in my heart, way in a dark little corner behind the mom stuff and the career aspirations and the family responsibilities, I still think of myself as a marathoner. I still believe I can go out and train as much as I want whenever I want. It turns out that old marathoners never die. They just suffer delusions of grandeur, which make a prudent buildup frustrating.

    Finally, as a last resort, I asked my husband for advice. Steve has run consistently for the past 30 years, but he, like Michele, trains too hard, although he would deny it. He lives to go out and run as far as he can, as hard as he can, as often as he can. Sometimes the results are spectacular: ninth in his age group at the 1996 World Duathlon Championships and a 2:26 marathon PR. But sometimes he crashes and burns. While this is unfortunate for him, he is a wealth of comeback knowledge. And heís offered the best advice so far: ďYou have to build a base.Ē

    Suddenly, the lightbulb switched on. Itís that simple! I was plotting and scheming how to add intervals, tempo runs, and increase my leg turnover. I was looking for programs and plans but had forgotten the key. First things first: lay a base.

    So the plan for the next month or so is to enjoy running and to live in a fantasy world. When I head out the door, rolling up and down the country roads, I feel fast and light and powerful, like my old self-until I look at my watch. So Iím going to quit timing workouts, trying to figure out my pace and inevitably comparing it to the past. Iím just going to run. Iíll deal with reality and concrete facts later. And maybe, after a couple months of blissfully ignorant base-building, Iíll find Iím facing a more promising reality.

    Or not. But at least I will have rediscovered the joy of running-feeling my arms and legs pumping strongly, watching the seasons change, and clearing my mind.

    While Iím by no means ready to throw in the towel, I am starting to wonder about the 2:48. So Iíve reassessed and feel pretty certain I can run under three hours. Iím up to 30 miles a week, which I enjoy immensely. Iím hoping to build to 45 or 50 miles in the next two months and am pretty sure Iíll start using a heart rate monitor. Then Iíll add some structure, seeing what sort of intervals I can do, attempting Micheleís tempo runs and trying to get her to see the beauty of a long, slow Sunday run.

    During the past 12 weeks itís been interesting to see which lessons have come back easily and which ones I have had to relearn the hard way. And which no longer apply!

    I pretty quickly remembered not to assess how a run is going in the middle of a hill, up or down. Iím pretty sure I have my elbows and knees under control and my posture adjusted, although Iím not willing to check it out on videotape. And Iím reacquainting myself with the different forms of fatigue and twinges, which ones to disregard and which ones signal the need to back off.

    It turns out Iím going to have to pay close attention to fatigue. I tried plowing through a run recently when I was really tired, knowing the next day was a day off. In the old days I would have done the same thing, then gone home to eat like a pig, hole up with a book with my feet up, then off to bed early. This time around, after dragging my cranky self home looking for some peace and quiet, I ran smack into a five-year-old wanting to play catch and a two-year-old needing answers to endless questions that have no answers. Growling at them from behind a book isnít an option. Making progress could take longer than I expected. Despite that, I look forward to the lift I get from the loud ďMommy is home!Ē and hugs around the knees when I jog up the sidewalk.

    And maybe that will turn out to be the biggest payoff-setting an example for Joe and Luisa. Steve has taped a saying to the front of the refrigerator: ďYour kids will become what you are; so be what you want them to be.Ē And while all they see is me heading off down the road, coming back 45 minutes later sweaty and red in the face, maybe someday theyíll understand that itís important to be strong and active, to work toward a distant payoff, to stay in touch with nature, to take risks, and to find something they love.

    OK, OK! I admit it; the next biggest payoff will be getting back into those pants. I wonder if Iíll be able to tuck in my shirt?

    Annette Pierceís comeback journey will continue in our March/April 2003 issue.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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    Last update: February 2003
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