Tapering. It’s well known to be a royal pain in the butt, anxiety inducing and pretty universally recognized as a crucial component of training. Being a competitive runner for awhile now, tapering is no foreign concept to me. Easing up in preparation for an important race is simply what I have always done, thanks to coaches who related the concept to me way back when. Competition season loomed from the first day of practice: a time when workouts got shorter and faster; qualifying times, record boards and personal record archives were close at hand and a stopwatch practically became an appendage.
I always loved and dreaded this part of the season. I’m an adrenaline junkie, so feeling fast combined with the pressure of meeting a set goal was exhilarating. But the possibility of missing the mark filled me with anxiety. I was terrified to let down my teammates, my coaches, and most of all, myself. I would think back on my training and criticize the days I had taken it a little easier, whether I’d had a good reason to or not. What if the little things that I failed to do added up to make me fail? I felt preemptive shame before the failure had even arrived, then pride and excitement for the work that I did do and what I actually could achieve. Tapering time, for me, has really always meant a rollercoaster of confidence and doubt that never really gets resolved until the race happens.
This time around, with marathon training, I’m in a bit of a different boat. I don’t have any teammates to perform for. I don’t think I’ll be a disappointment to my coach, so long as I finish. And having never run this distance before, I even have a hard time coming up with a situational definition of “failure” for myself. I want to run a marathon. When I cross the finish line, I will have run my personal best time for 26.2 miles. I have an idea, based on my long runs, of what my time might be, but no equidistant past races to base that theory upon. I have a blank slate and a piece of chalk in my hand.
My high school cross country coach used to remind us to take it easy the day before a big meet, saying, “the hay is in the barn.” (Did I mention my hometown houses more cows than people? This might make more sense in context...) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the effort it takes to manually transport hay from the field it grows on into neat stacks inside a barn, it’s a very sweaty and laborious job. The point being, the hard work has been done. You have the tools in your toolbox. You are as ready to perform as you can be, because the most important preparation is already behind you.
I guess I can see that I am at that point right now. I have trained my body to run longer than it had ever run nonstop, and then longer. Week after week, I pushed it farther, then faster, then farther again. I struggled to complete “longest” runs on legs weary from ten miles of intervals two days before, but I did it. I forced my stride to quicken when I felt as if my shoes were glued to cinder blocks, and proceeded to recover and make my mileage for the week. I’ve run in perfect conditions and less than ideal ones. I’ve dealt with digestive upset and apparel malfunctions and spontaneous hailstorms. This week, I won’t go too awfully far or too awfully fast. I’ll relax and nurture, fuel and focus. By Sunday my legs and my mind and my spirit will be chomping at the bit, craving the next challenge that has been promised to them by the rhythmic habit of the past several months. I’ll be ready to run VCM, and put all of the work that’s been done to good use.
With less than a week left I can finally see the weather forecast for next Sunday on my weather app and, knock on wood, it looks like it’ll be a beautiful day to run. I’m looking forward to enjoying these few days of relative rest, attending the expo and fueling up on some last-minute motivation from seeing the many, many awesome runners that will be coming into town very soon!
Until RACE DAY (!!!!!!!) and best of luck to all participants!