Exit Strategy

I’m training for a marathon again – my first since injuring my foot in 2019 – which means it’s time to make a plan. 

Marathons don’t happen by accident nor by chance. 26.2 is a deeply intentional distance, and preparing for the race requires a combination of science, superstition, logic, preference and luck. To date I’ve completed six full marathons, seventeen halfs, and countless 5- and 10ks, so I’ve made dozens of training plans.

Most of them worked. 

During my ill-fated training for the 2019 Eugene Marathon, my ego got the best of me. I started with a solid base, but was laser focused on hitting a big PR to the point where I ignored my body’s warning signs. I overtrained and ran 20-milers on back-to-back weekends, which (unsurprisingly) did not end well.  

Three years later, I have an older body but a wiser mind, and I’m approaching this training cycle with all the lessons I’ve learned the hard way. 

I know that poor hydration will tank a run faster than poor fuel, and the amount of sleep I got in the prior week matters more than my midweek mileage. 

I know that healthy progress is not linear, so I need to build in deloading weeks. 

I know that physical therapy matters. Like a LOT. 

And I also know that I cannot predict the future. As valuable as experience is, it’s not possible to anticipate precisely when off days (or weeks) will happen.

So I’m building in options, budgeting for setbacks, and setting rest and recovery as the expectation, not an afterthought. 

Instead of prescribing every single day with midweek runs and cross training, I’ve scaled back to a loose outline that focuses on weekend long runs only. A few key details locked into place quickly: I know the date of the marathon, I know I want 20 miles to be my longest run, and I know I prefer a three-week taper. From there, I played around and landed on three possibilities. All three get me to the same destination, and all three incorporate what has proven to work with my body while avoiding traps I’ve fallen into in the past. 

One element noticeably missing is time. The last marathon I completed was in 2018, with a younger, uninjured body. The stats and splits that body was capable of simply are not relevant to my 2022 self, so I am approaching this training cycle with no expectations beyond strong, safe mileage. 

Even more important than the wiggle room I’m building into my plan(s), I’m giving myself permission to withdraw at any time, up to and including race day, with no guilt or judgment. As I slowly ramp up my distance, I will be listening to my body with hard earned acuteness and adapting in real time. The number on the spreadsheet is irrelevant if my body is telling me to stop. I now know the difference between the Good Hurt of hard work and the Bad Hurt of potential injury, and I know that no temporary goal is worth a long term setback. I’d much rather bow out after 17 miles than lose even more years of running. 

A younger version of myself saw exit strategies as weakness, like I was already making excuses before I’d even begun. Now I see this flexibility as necessary. Exit strategies aren’t ways to quit, but rather are ways to adjust so that I don’t stop running entirely. The flip side of “I don’t have to” is “I choose to.” Giving myself permission to stop at any time means that every mile I do run is an intentional decision. 

I am choosing to test where my limits are in 2022 and push them in smarter, safer ways. I am choosing to find out not only if my body can still cover 26.2, but also if it should. I am choosing to learn if I still have what it takes (and to acknowledge that “it” is a moving target).

Mostly I am choosing to reconnect with a part of myself that’s been dormant for years. Registering for the marathon has already motivated me to run 14 miles, the longest distance I’ve run since the injury. Running this kind of mileage pain-free has me feeling optimistic, and knowing I have an exit strategy makes me willing to start again. 

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