Product Geek vs. Marathon

I had always wanted to run a marathon, but with a long string of injuries and a 44 year-old body I knew I had to do it properly or I wouldn’t be able to finish. The time commitments of being a tech executive and my family had always prevented me from seriously considering it. It was on my “someday list” where ideas loiter and often die.

Then last November things unexpectedly changed.

I found myself with plenty of time and exactly 18 weeks to prepare for the Los Angeles Marathon. As a longtime product leader, I decided I would plan for it as if it were a product launch with a roadmap, milestones along the way, a proper team of people to help me and a grand flourish (the race itself) at the end. I set a goal to finish it in 4 hours or less — and with a smile on my face. And then I did what obsessive product people usually do, I built out a roadmap charting a course from start to finish.

The Roadmap (Training Plan)

I wanted a training plan for my runs that steadily built up mileage over the months ahead. A bit of research, a couple YouTube videos and a cross-reference with an endurance athlete friend led me to the Hal Higdon’s website.

The freely available plans on Hal’s site are nicely done. The Novice 2 approach looked like a winner — I had run plenty of half marathons before and was in good shape so I was comfortable skipping the most basic level. It also avoided all of the dreaded speed workouts included in the more advanced regimens.

I copied it into a Google Sheet that looked like this and hit the road.

My original training plan based on Novice 2 by Hal Higdon (+ upper body weight training)

The Coach

I had a hunch that I needed to improve my running form if I was going to be pounding out hundreds of miles in the months ahead. I searched on Yelp for running coaches in West Los Angeles and after a little back and forth I had an appointment with Coach Gareth.

Coach Gareth’s analysis begins with a blood-lactate test to gauge fitness and form. I had unwisely assumed this would be easy and ate a breakfast burrito at a morning meeting about an hour earlier. My regret was nearly immediate.

The test consisted of running at progressively faster speeds on the treadmill and pausing between each increase in speed to have Gareth prick my finger and capture a drop of blood. The blood was then processed by a device connected to his laptop. The concept behind the test is to determine at which point you show clear signs of fatigue as measured by a sharp rise in lactate. Lactate is normally produced by the body but spikes during high intensity workouts. In simple terms, the longer you can go without lactate levels rising, the better off you are.

My results are in the following chart:

The chart admittedly didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I read the analysis:

Lactate levels start low at 0.9 mmol and rise gradually, showing that you have the basis of a strong aerobic system and have a well-developed aerobic, fat burning base. Soon after 8.5 mph (7.05 min/ mile min mile) you start to lose aerobic efficiency shown by lactate rising more rapidly and going above 4 mmol. This is your “threshold” and key to running performance. You will now benefit from more specific training including some speed work.

Ugh.

My momentary joy of having a “strong aerobic, fat burning base” was quickly erased by the need for “some speed work” that I was very much trying to avoid.

Coach Gareth drafted me a revised training plan based on my test results which I used to replace the Hal Higdon plan I had used for the first 3 weeks. Here’s a snapshot the new, custom plan I followed closely:

Revised training plan, calibrated w/ blood-lactate results & including speed training. I modified it a bit, opting for more rest on the weekends vs. the recommended 40 minute runs.

(Re)Learning How to Run at 44

As I had suspected, Coach Gareth had some not-so-happy feedback on my running form.

“The good news is that you’re fit. The bad news is that your running mechanics suck.”

In fairness he may not have been that harsh, but that’s what I remember hearing. He showed me a video of one of the professional runners that trains with him. She moved with graceful strides that would shame a gazelle. Gareth showed how her heels lifted and knees pumped expertly with each step, creating a sort of kinetic loop which is the apparent hallmark of great runners.

We then watched the video of me running at speed during my blood-lactate test. My heels barely lifted from the treadmill. My knees pumped feebly. To the professional runner’s gazelle, I was a scampering opossum. Gareth described my style tactfully as “a shuffle” more than the intended circular motion. It was fixable, he assured me, but would require some work.

I returned to spend 1.5 hours fixing my running mechanics. He had shown me some techniques to work on to close out our initial session, but every time I tried to apply them they felt awkward and my old “shuffle” quickly returned. It undoubtedly felt better to run with proper form, but it felt so unnatural I couldn’t sustain it.

I spent a lot of time at the track (usually Drake Stadium at UCLA early in the AM) both working on my running mechanics and giving my body a break from the unforgiving street surface.

During our time on the track, Gareth moved me slowly through each step of the proper form, working on my heels first and then my knee motion. It was starting to sink in. He would try different tactics to get me to relax and naturally run with better form. Eventually we found the answer: my arms.

I had been running with my elbows apart from my body, which encouraged my legs to open outward in a loose running stance. Once we tried having my focus on keeping my arms closer to my body, everything fell into place. My legs naturally followed. My knees and heels lifted more easily. I would need practice, but I had what I needed.

Pre-Emptive Physical Therapy

I’ve had 3 knee surgeries, 2 shoulder surgeries, a broken wrist, a broken femur, a dislocated elbow and then some. Through all of this, I’ve built deep and abiding belief in the power of physical therapy (PT).

Early in my training I decided I would not wait until I had a problem with my running but I would do physical therapy, starting in month 2. I sent a quick email to my family doctor at UCLA Healthcare and within a couple days I had a prescription — no visit required. I returned to Joubert Physical Therapy nearby who had recently helped me recover from shoulder surgery to repair a grumpy rotator cuff.

Other than the running itself, I don’t believe anything helped me more than doing PT regularly throughout my training. I did one session every other week until the miles grew into the high teens and then I did PT weekly. I even did a session the day before the marathon which went a long way to helping my aching feet. Seen through a product lens, these sessions were akin to routine stand-up meetings where I shared status of my prep work and talked through it with the trainer.

The early sessions focused on proper stretching and rolling along with strengthening exercises focused on my glutes and inner thighs. I have always had strong, big legs but I found quickly when doing focused glute and abductor exercises that I still had weak areas that needed to improve. Crab walks with bands soon became a regular exercise for me, among others.

Improving glute & inner thigh strength became a new priority… even for a guy who never skipped leg day.

My later PT sessions were all about massage and keeping me free from injury as the runs grew longer. At first when the long runs started my primary therapist, the extraordinary Mark Yee, would remark on my legs being as “stiff as concrete”, requiring nearly the entire hour to simply loosen me up enough to go on. After a few weeks of long runs in month 3, my body adjusted to the load and he noticed that even though the miles were greater than before, my legs were actually much looser and ready for the next set of runs.

It was working.

Keeping Your Mind from Eating Itself

There are people who consider running a deep meditation. They claim they reach a trance-like state while the miles pass effortlessly by. For the rest of us, there’s audiobooks. I can’t imagine what I would have done without them.

While training for the LA Marathon, I listened to audio books via Audible on every run except my speed work which required music. I finished 8 books while training including Factfulness, Cadillac Desert, Hillbilly Elegy, The Florentine Deception, The Perfect Weapon and Dennis Taylor’s excellent Bobiverse sci-fi series.

The harder the training became, the more I leaned on “fun” books versus learning. I remember trying to listen to the history of Geology on Bill Bryson’s “A Brief History of Nearly Everything.” It’s a great book, but if the body is working hard, the brain deserves a little candy. Bobiverse got me through the back half of my training, including about 1.5 hours of the LA Marathon itself.

Fitting in Weight Training

I love lifting weights and I did not want to stop while running, so I came up with a schedule that still allowed me a little gym time. I simply had to train differently since I wasn’t going to have the time and energy to focus on a couple body parts a day. Much like a product launch, there’s always other activities to juggle and fit into your schedule — marathon prep wasn’t going to be any different.

Working with my trainer, Renee Porter, I switched to primarily doing 20–30 minutes of circuit training 3 times a week on the days I had lighter or no running. I added in a generous amount of stretching and foam-rolling. Core work was done 3–4 times a week.

I used the weekends for recovery and If I did something active it was typically a bike ride or soccer with my son and friends. I kept my schedule in a Trello board. I admittedly could have used a spreadsheet or another tool, but I was already using Trello for personal productivity so it fit naturally.

Here’s a glimpse at a few weeks of training:

The result? I maintained strength, became considerably leaner with the most noticeable improvements being that my normally blocky legs gained some nice muscle definition.

(Not) Losing Weight

I expected the pounds to fall off easily.

They didn’t.

Prior to training I weighed in at around 174 lbs. I like to weigh between 165 and 170 but stress from my former job and holiday travel had taken a toll. I was surprised when I not only didn’t lose weight but gained a little after I started my running regimen. In product-ese, my burn-down charts did not paint a flattering picture.

While I partly blame the holiday season for this, I also found that I was hungrier than before. Much hungrier. And I craved carbohydrates, especially after a run. I made some changes in order to lighten up my body some as the training wore on and extra weight would only serve to increase the pounding on my now aching feet.

My primary adjustments were the following:

  • Eat more complex carbohydrates, especially oatmeal and sprouted tortillas
  • Increase veggies, especially broccoli and cauliflower
  • Swap out beer for Kombucha — it has a lot less calories and usually .5–1% alcohol.
  • Snack better — I returned to snacks that maybe don’t taste awesome but are filling: raw almonds, protein shakes and green apples.
  • High protein, low calorie ice cream (e.g., Halo Top) for dessert. It’s not real ice cream, but it’s not half bad. Especially the Cookie Dough flavor.

The combined effect of all these little adjustments landed me just under 170 lbs. before the race. Not a massive change but I was noticeably leaner and I felt light.

My virtual ice baths at the CryoZone to speed recovery

Cryotherapy

I bought a 10 pack of cryotherapy treatments for grins at the start of my training. Think of it as an ice bath concentrated into a 3-minute session where you stand in an increasingly freezing cylinder in your underwear with boots and gloves on.

I thought I would use cryotherapy after every long run to aid recovery. For a bunch of reasons this didn’t happen, but I did use cryotherapy 6–7 times during training and the day before the marathon itself.

I can’t tell you that it worked. I can’t tell you that it didn’t. What I can say is that I always felt great after the treatments and I slept better that evening.

The Part Where Things Blow Up

There’s no product launch I’ve ever seen where something doesn’t go seriously wrong at an inopportune moment. Marathon training was to be no different.

In the weeks before the race, the front part of my feet began to ache. First a little, then a lot. It wasn’t my first-time encountering pain while marathon training — I had worked through very sore hips in month 2 which I alleviated through more stretching, PT, improving my form and settling for lower impact treadmill runs when running the streets hurt too much.

The main difference between the hip pain and what I was experiencing with my feet was proximity to race day — I woke up in the middle of the night 6 days before the race and I knew I had to do something. I was worried it might be a stress fracture. I called my Podiatrist friend, Dr. Brian Park, first thing Monday morning and he squeezed me in the same day.

After diagnosis and x-rays, I was diagnosed with metatarsalgia: a common condition for runners who have trained heavily. As Brian explained, the arches of my feet are unusually rigid and all of the impact was being absorbed by my heel and forefoot.

“See where you have all the calluses? That’s where the impact is. See how you’re arch has skin like a baby? It’s not taking any of your weight. That’s the problem.”

The best solution was a lot of rest as it would heal with time. While I could ice and rest my feet for the days before the race, it wasn’t going to be enough. Alongside orthotic inserts to better shape the shoe to my rigid arches, Brian recommended switching shoes to one with more impact absorption and a “rocker” design like Hoka offers.

It’s well-known that you should never, ever switch shoes before race day. But what if your current shoes are hurting your feet? I had to choose between 2 unattractive options — a trade-off scenario any product person has experienced many times over.

The options I considered were:

1. Stick with my trusty Brooks Ghost shoes with an orthotic insert. Hope that it’s enough to keep the pain away.

2. Switch to new shoes designed to better absorb the impact that was hurting my feet. Plus orthotics. Hope that there’s no issue breaking them in during the big event.

I chose to throw the dice with a new pair of Hoka Elevon and a pair of off the shelf orthotic inserts I picked up at FrontRunners in Brentwood. I didn’t have time for fancy custom orthotics but the measurements they took of my feet were telling. The red areas below show where I ran with greatest impact… and pinpoint exactly where I had the most pain.

I used off the shelf orthotics for race day, but the measurement for custom inserts was revealing — the biggest points of pressure were exactly where it hurt the most (the red parts).

After a week of resting, icing and wearing my new shoes, my feet felt decidedly “ok” for race day. It would have to do.

Launch: Race Day

I had picked out my race day early morning carbs the day before with an aim of taking in 100 grams of quality carbs I could harness during the race. A chocolate protein shake, a banana and an RX bar made the grade with a bottle of water to wash it all down. At Dr. Brian’s recommendation, I also took 600mg of Ibuprofen as well so that it was in my body by the time my feet were ready to stage a full revolt later in the race.

Race day was spectacular. The Los Angeles Marathon seemingly stitches together the madcap pieces of the city into a single quilt for about 8 hours a year. From Chinatown to Brentwood and everything in between, the community arrives in force to cheer the runners, no matter who you are. As a solitary, early morning runner who usually is on the street alone with abandoned e-scooters and the homeless, the effect was striking. For the first 10 miles I turned off music and audio books and simply drank it in. I can’t say I have experienced anything like it before.

I stopped at nearly every hydration station and drank a cup of Gatorade and allowed myself a short walk. I had 4–5 gels, each with 100 mg of caffeine. The formula worked — I felt good until mile 24 when I felt a nasty cramp forming in my left quad. I stopped, massaged it for about 30 seconds and decided I would try to run through it. Shortly thereafter, it disappeared. Phew.

I finished the race strong but short of my goal by almost 3 minutes: 4 hours, 2 minutes and 55 seconds. It did not matter in the least.

Recovery

It took about 3 days to feel reasonably recovered. I went into PT first thing the next day after the race for massage, icing and ultrasound on my feet. I was active during the day but little more — everything hurt. The next day I went into the gym and did a slow 20 minutes on the elliptical machine followed by stretching and foam rolling. After an Epsom salt bath, I felt much improved. Wednesday morning, I met with my trainer and did a relatively light workout starting with dynamic leg stretches and finishing with upper body weight training. I was spent, but nearly felt normal.

The day after — massage and ice bags on my legs at PT

Retrospective

No launch is complete without the lessons learned, so here’s the results of my post-marathon retro:

  • Do the speed work — it not only made me a better runner and promoted muscle growth, but it broke up the long runs and made training more fun
  • Do physical therapy along the way — or at least regular massage — to prevent injury and tune in to what’s happening in your body
  • Cryotherapy is fast (<15 mins in total per visit) and made me feel/sleep better when I did it — worth the investment
  • Refine your diet earlier so that weight comes off more quickly, reducing impact on feet (and the body in general)
  • Wear shoes with extra support & impact absorption during long distance training and use lighter shoes for shorter runs on softer surfaces — then use the lighter shoes for race day to optimize for speed
  • Community is awesome — I’ve never felt so supported by my friends or even the city around me. Especially those who unexpectedly showed up to cheer me on (Thanks Matthew! Thanks Mark!)

It was one of the most intense periods of learning I’ve had physically since high school sports. The focus of having a clear goal made motivation easy. And most of all, I’m eager to apply what I learned from this year to another race so I can beat my original goal of running 26.2 in under 4 hours.

There’s always the next version :-)

Entrepreneur. Gardener. Dad. Gym Rat. Occasional Author.

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Dave Cole

Dave Cole

Entrepreneur. Gardener. Dad. Gym Rat. Occasional Author.

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