Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tucson Marathon 2009

Good morning yesterday

you wake up and time has slipped away

and suddenly it's hard to find

the memories you left behind
(song by Nichols and Lane, sung by Joanna Wong - thanks Elaine!)

Luckily we have blogs these days. At least some ground truth for epic experiences like my struggle to come to terms with marathoning.

The good? A spectacular sunrise (captured on my iPhone) 4500 ft (1400m) up at the start in Oracle. What an awesome start and a dream course. Eliminating the Biosphere deviation (2008) meant uninterrupted panoramic vistas of the Santa Catalina mountains coming down Oracle Rd after mile 10.

(This course is nearly as good as when I ran it first in 2006 when there was the luxury of finishing at the Hilton El Conquistador.)

Also good. I bought a new pair of shoes after briefly trying them at the marathon expo on Friday. Newtons. They're quite different from ordinary running shoes. (And priced quite differently too.)

Decided against conventional wisdom to chance them on Sunday for the event. The soles of my feet haven't had the chance to get used to them but they're a dream shoe if you have decent running mechanics.

The final good thing was that I finished. Just under the psychologically important 4 hour mark. You can all stop reading here.

What follows below is a core dump for when this event becomes part of the "misty yesteryears" (song reference).


3:57 bracket. This was my slowest Tucson marathon out of the three I've done.

(In fact, I had a minor heart attack when I looked at my iPod and it said 4:15... turns out I'd left it running after crossing the finish line. Have always been looking to improving not sliding backwards. That would have been a major bummer. Glue factory thoughts. I've never done a marathon over the 3:59 mark, and I really don't want to start now.)

A tale of two Tucson marathons

(2008) Last year, I had nearly enough endurance but I noticed didn't have speed. Although I was unhappy that I faded late in the marathon, still I managed to post an almost respectable 3:41 time. (See report here.)

(2009) This year, I had no opportunity to do long runs. Instead, I hoped 30 min sessions with speedwork on a treadmill would address my lack of speed last year, boost my aerobic capacity and substitute for endurance. Outdoors, I ran 10Ks once a week to save time. The result? I ran with good form for about 18 miles and then suddenly crashed to a limp and robotic shuffle as my leg muscles locked up on me. Last 7 miles was excruciatingly long and pathetic. 3:57.

A Stupid Exercise

Afterwards, I realized this was a stupid exercise. I was also 3 kg overweight (good food in Doha). There is nothing heroic about completing a marathon when one's muscles have quit. It's extremely dispiriting to have to walk unnaturally mile after mile. And the damage to the undertrained and overworked muscles is counterproductive to recovery and fitness anyway.There is no point in entering.

Completing it in just under 4 hours: there is simply no value to this experiment. I've done the "just under 4" before. What possibly more could I learn? I really wish I hadn't run it this year.

Lessons for the Future

Memo to self: I believe there are two necessary and sufficient components to a successful marathon. One is sheer aerobic capacity from speedwork. The second is muscle endurance from long runs. Having just one out of two will only get you so far. But not having the 2nd will result in a total collapse like this time.

Speedwork can compensate for lack of endurance to some degree. In fact, I believe simple speedwork can substitute for half-marathon fitness. But there is something special about the marathon distance: 42.125 km or 26.2 miles of pounding overwhelms ordinary, everyday fitness. It imposes an endurance demand on the human physiological system that requires specific training.

Another way to look at it is total workload. A marathon is about 3000 kcal for someone of my weight. A 10K is about 800 kcal's worth. There is no way you're gonna scale up from 800 to 3000 kcal on race day.

Memo to self: Put another way, if you haven't put in the miles, don't bother to show up. Seriously.If you're gonna show up, respect the distance.

With that in mind, let's roll on and look forward to a decent showing in the Tokyo Marathon (2010)...

[Update: A week later, my left calf muscle is still hurting and my right knee (outside) twinges now and then. Simple overuse injuries. Definitely overdid it.]


  1. congratulations on your third Tucson Marathon. I wanted to be anywhere under 5 hrs, but I had some serious leg issues to deal with. I did Tucson this year so that I could come down and see my son who is a freshman at UofA. He wants to be a computer science major. Is that the department you're in?

  2. Yes, I'm in computer science (and linguistics). Though I'm away on sabbatical leave this year.

  3. Hello, Sandiway Fong. I found your blog about a month ago and it seems you live an interesting life! I also have read some of your older posts like the one about the reverse backhand and I was pretty impressed by your level of play. I am a penhold player as well and I take much pride into that shot : ) . I was wondering where you are planning to go since you are still on sabatical leave. If you are ever near Saratoga, NY, there is a ping pong club I am part (Locust Lane Table Tennis) of that is open Tuesdays and Thursdays. Just a heads up in case you are ever in the area.

  4. Hi, I tried looking up the Locust Lane club but couldn't find anything, e.g. address. Is it part of a citizen's center or something? USATT affiliated?

  5. It is not USATT affiliated, it's just a clubhouse with 3 nice tables run by the town I live in. There is an USATT affiliated club at Rens. Polytechnical Institute (RPI, also near here) but not many people play there as of late. It is located in the town of Clifton Park, NY, 12065. That address and Locust Lane table tennis should be able to reference you to the towns webpage and information of the club on Google. Asides from that I've played at Wang Chen's ping pong club in downtown manhatten once, that has many good players too (a few 2500 regulars, it is USATT affiliated).

  6. You're lucky! Any place with decent lighting, room and good tables is sufficient for good practice.

    As long as one can find someone willing and consistent enough to practice with on a regular basis (maybe at least 1800?).

    Doesn't have to be a 2500 level player or be in some fancy, expensive club.

  7. At 2100 or so rating, you must find it hard to see improvement in comparison to before when you first started, right? I'm around 1400 right now and at the club I'm part of we have mostly 1650-1900 players (of those who are ranked) and I find myself at a little bit of a halt in improvement, because like you (but for other reasons, yours probably being time), I have trouble finding places to play. For the first 2 years I started ping pong I played only once a week at my school's club for 2-3 hours at a time. Then I started to go to this club and I got a lot better, fast. Now I feel it's getting harder with only playing 2 times a week, 3 hours at a time (not constant play time, sometimes we have to sub in/out). Asides from that I watch videos on youtube like Ping Skills (a youtube channel) has some good instructional value, though not many penhold instructional videos are on there.

  8. I think it's still possible to keep improving even on 6 hours a week if you know what to work on. And that doesn't always mean playing games.

    For me, I am not match-sharp so I'm unlikely to beat myself when I was 2150, but technique-wise, I can always see my way to improvement because I understand the fundamentals a little better now. And that brings some joy and satisfaction to my game.

    With respect to matches, it's good to have a variety of players to play against (as I did when I was a member of the NJTTC).