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April with the Big Elephant

Personal updates

Nantes – Come for the elephant, stay for the marathon.

It’s April vacation in France, which is two weeks long. I love the school calendar here. The general pattern is six weeks of classes, then two weeks of vacation. This is nice for kids and teachers. A little more complicated for parents, but hey, that’s what we signed up for.

We took advantage of the time off to visit the city of Nantes, which is amongst my favorite French cities (Paris is NOT in the top 5, in case you’re wondering).

Nantes is a cool city. It has an amazing historical center, but also a lot of former industrial space that has been converted to art galleries, bars, cafés, restaurants, etc. It’s bustling with creative energy. I’m probably not the first to compare it to Berlin.

The main attraction, for which it has become best known, are the machines. Giant robotic structures, the most emblematic of which is a larger than life elephant made of wood and metal that sprays steam from its trunk and marches around. You can ride it. All this thanks to some artist collective who became enamored with the idea back in the 80’s.

They dreamt up this idea in Toulouse but didn’t get any support from the local government. Nantes welcomed them and gave them a massive hangar that was formerly used for shipbuilding. Toulouse missed out. This attraction has become one of the main draws to Nantes, synonymous with its image as supporting creativity and reimagining its industrial past. 

Back to racing

Game time

You didn’t think we went to Nantes on some random weekend in April, right? No, it was marathon weekend! I enjoy a destination race as much as the next person, so the trip was for the family, but I also got my race time in. Sophie and the girls managed to see me a few times along the course, which was awesome.

I was not well-prepared for this marathon. When I signed up back in January, I was hoping to be training between six to eight hours per week and doing race-specific workouts. Instead I crashed my bike, broke a rib, had a subsequent lung infection, was on antibiotics, and had a string of colds sprinkled in. Not ideal.

However, I was able to do the bare minimum, averaging three to four hours per week, and had done a few long runs. I knew I had enough endurance to finish the race. The question was really about pace. If I ran 3 hours 20 minutes, that would qualify me for next year’s Boston marathon. That became my main goal. I figured I could do a 3h15 without too much suffering. I committed to follow the 3h15 pace group for as long as possible, maybe break away the last 10k if I felt good. The plan was entirely dependent on my experience and residual endurance base.

Racing insights: the dashboard

There are times when you have signed up for a race, training has not been ideal, and you have to 100% rely on experience. This was one of those times. Starting the race, I realized that I have a mental dashboard when I run. There are three main systems to monitor:

1. Heart rate. Indicates cardiovascular / pulmonary effort. If goes too high too early, I’ll be forced to slow down later. I can monitor this on my watch. I know if I’m below 160 on average, I can maintain the pace. If I get to 170, it’s danger zone. 

2. Gut. Running for three hours is hard to do on an empty stomach. Running for three hours is also hard to do on a full stomach. Finding balance is the key. I got a hint of the beginning of a cramp within the first 2 miles. That was going to limit my pace as well. If I sped up, there was a good chance the cramp would turn into a side-splitting stitch, forcing me to walk or limp along.

3. Muscles and tendons. It’s not uncommon to see runners grab their calf or hamstring in pain and move off the road to walk as they wait for their seized muscles to release. A lot of things can cause muscle cramps. Being underprepared is chief among them. I was carefully monitoring my hamstring muscles especially. There’s not a lot to be done during a race to avoid cramps (as long as you’re staying hydrated and taking electrolytes), but I made sure to keep my cadence high. Long strides cause hamstrings to work harder, and can lead to strain.

In the end I was able to follow the 3h15 pace group without too much difficulty. It was a relief to let someone else do the mental work of keeping the pace. We had mostly windy and cool conditions, which was nice for running. It started drizzling when I was around the 20 mile mark, and really pouring when I hit 22. That was when I decided to break out from the pace group and run the last 5k by myself. I was feeling energized, and let myself speed up and take the risk of running my own faster pace. It actually wasn’t that fast, but I was passing people for the last 3 miles, and that drove me on.

I crossed the line in 3:15:15, in a downpour, on a red carpet, and was as happy as could be.

Pain cave? What pain cave?

Deep thoughts

Why? Why race when you’re unprepared? Why suffer unnecessarily?

I used to race to see how fast I could go. The marathon is a complex puzzle that requires months of preparation, discipline and attention to detail in order to really do it well. I enjoy tinkering with the variables of training, weekly mileage, intensity ranges, heart rate tracking, diet, sleep, stress, and mental strategies. It all has to come together to shave just a few minutes off your best time.

I’m pretty sure my fastest races are behind me. I could surprise myself, but it would be very surprising. So why do it? Even though I’m not getting faster, I still enjoy the process of figuring what the best is that I can do today.

By running 3h15 last weekend, I qualify to run the 2024 Boston marathon, which is a privilege any time you’re able to do it. It’s our Mardi Gras, Carnaval, Fourth of July and St. Paddy’s Day, all wrapped into one. On that day, it’s the epicenter of the running world. To get to run the same course along with some of the best runners in the world and take part in all that history, it’s emotional, inspiring and always memorable.

I can’t wait.

Forget Paris. Visit Nantes for French culture, creativity, and no pretension.

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