That's right--bonk. It is actually hard to imagine a more stereotypical bonk.
(I posted a race report on the RWOL Marathon Race Training Forum--it suffices to relate what happened, so I don't think there's any need to write out a new one or to repost it here.)
Instead, I want to spend a little time reflecting on what happened, what went wrong, and what I can learn from it.
Basically, my quads could not stand up to the pounding of 20+ miles. That seems to be the bottom line. All other systems were go past 20, but every step was so painful that I couldn't keep moving. To me, this points to a problem with training volume. I spent some time crunching the numbers to determine how this training cycle compared to the spring cycle, which has been my most successful so far.
I discovered that I had actually toed the line with an inflated sense of my preparedness. I had thought my total training volume was roughly comparable to that of the spring cycle. Nope! In fact, I averaged 43.9 miles a week for the 18 weeks leading up to Sunburst, and only 40.9 miles a week for Monumental. Not a huge difference, but enough of one to ensure that I should have been much less complacent about my 3:40:59 goal. Why didn't I do the math more carefully before the race? Well, that's a good question. I think I just thought I was close enough and didn't need to take the time. I had planned for more miles, but didn't realize just how much the runs I missed had added up.
Two workouts in particular helped to shore up my confidence: the last 20-miler and a Yasso 800 workout consisting of 10 x 800m at 3:30-3:35 pace. After both of these I felt incredible...like I could have run another 10K easily, or more 800s, whatever the case was. So, even though I had a sub-optimal training cycle (several missed runs due to sickness, work, etc.) I thought I had rallied enough to improve "easily." I was also coming off a 23-minute PR at Sunburst, and figured another 10-15 minutes would be doable. Man, this race bites you in the ass when you deserve it.
When I started the race, I ran a few miles at around 8:00 min/mile pace (way too fast). It was hard to slow down, but by mile 5 or so, I had settled into 8:15s, which was close to my goal pace range of 8:15 to 8:30. Because of the fast start and somewhat-fast early middle miles, I had banked some time on the 3:40 goal, but I still felt okay about it because I was still on pace for about 3:35, which I had thought was doable. Now it is plain that I didn't have enough endurance. I could waste time wondering if adhering more strictly to 8:15s and up from the start would have made a difference, but...well, there's no point. In fact, I should probably wonder if running strict 8:27s wouldn't have been my best bet. Oh wait, I just said there's no point. :)
But I can learn from this experience and try to remember it when I start my next marathon. The lesson is: don't be ambitious, stupid. Follow the PLAN. That's definitely step one, and so very easy to ignore as the miles roll by effortlessly in the early going.
There are also a number of things I can do to help ensure that bonks like this become much less likely in the future. I think it's plain that I need more and longer long runs to be well-prepared for 3.5 hours of relentless pounding. In general, I need to continue my long-term plan of continuing to increase mileage. I don't know how much more I can fit into my schedule, but I will always be inspired by those who run a hell of lot more than me while also doing a hell of a lot more with their lives. I need to be more consistent with it this time around.
Another aspect of training that's becoming increasingly clear is that I need more LSD (long slow distance) and less speedwork. Speed (speaking in relative terms of course!!!) comes naturally to me. My PRs drop off considerably as I move up in distance. So I'm thinking I'll lose most speedwork (other than tempo runs and maybe a couple of sessions later in the marathon training cycle). It was a good experiment, but the extra speedwork I did this cycle probably had me better prepared for a shorter race.
And a third thing I can do is run at least one tune-up race per cycle. I never got a chance to this past fall (other than a couple of 5Ks, which do not really count), and I think if I had I might have had a better idea of what I was capable of on race day.
So with that, I'm already giving some thought to the spring cycle. For a while, I thought to rally immediately and run the Last Chance for Boston Marathon in Ohio in February, in order to qualify for 2009. But there's no guarantee that registration would even be open by the time the race takes place, and if it is, it's pricey. Running three marathons in half a year's time doesn't seem like the best idea, either (assuming I qualify and am able to register). If that scenario took place, I would not be running Boston hard, but any marathon is going to take a toll. So I think 2009 is a wash and it's probably time to turn my attention to 2010. A year and a half away--almost as much time as has gone by since I first started working towards this goal in earnest in January 2007.
No, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the most sensible course is to allow myself to recover, rebuild my base slowly, and pick training back up for a spring marathon. Heck, if I manage to qualify in the spring, I could take a break in the fall (and save up for Boston plane tickets!). But I am getting far ahead of myself. Need to qualify first. :) I do like my chances of making it to Boston 2010, since I'll have two opportunities. It's wrenching to realize that I'll have to put my dream on hold for another year, but I'm only paying for my own mistakes. At least I know I can hang around in the women's BQ thread on RWOL for a while longer! ;)
Since I'm getting married in June, I have to plan around that. It might not end up being a big deal, but it seems prudent to plan on an early spring marathon instead of one just a week or two before the big day. I found a new race, the Illinois Marathon, which is to be held on April 11 in Champaign. This is the frontrunner right now. Interestingly, the Last Chance for Boston Half Marathon would work out perfectly as a tune-up race. So, giving that some thought.
As for a training schedule, I think I will probably go with Pfitz 18/70, modified to subtract some of the miles (hoping to average around 50, peaking at 65-70). The 18/55 schedule has worked well, and I think I'm ready to take a step up. Lots of long and medium-long runs and not as much speedwork: exactly what I need. If I were to go for the April marathon in Illinois, training would start on December 8, giving me just over a month to recover and rebuild.