First of all, tapering sucks. I’m seriously going out of my mind!! I’ve heard other runners say that the toughest part of marathon training isn't the first few weeks out the door. Or the slow grinding buildup of mileage. Or the dedication and commitment it takes to train 4-6 days a week. Or even the last sweat-soaked long run of 22 miles. It's the three weeks before the race…the dreaded TAPER.
Let me back up and explain this tapering phenomenon to those of you who don’t run, or haven’t trained for a marathon. Tapering means a decrease in running during the last few weeks of marathon training. You run less and rest more. Tapering allows your muscles to repair the micro-damage of intervals, your energy systems to store up glycogen, your body to overcome the chronic dehydration of hard training, and that last bit of tendonitis in your knee or ankle or hip to finally go away. All in all, tapering enables your body to recover from all the stress from the previous months of training and be in prime condition for competition.
All this rest sounds well and good, right? No. Tapering is a period of great anxiety for many runners. Over the course of training for a marathon, runners develop not only a physical but also a psychological dependency on running. They become accustomed to running a lot of miles every week and constantly feeling the rush of endorphin driven highs and the persistent fatigue and soreness of effort. So when runners take time off, they go through withdrawal, not unlike the addict going cold turkey. Needless to say, this is the time where most marathoners go a bit crazy! The runner will be irritable, anxious, nervous, overly emotional, short-tempered, restless, tired, cranky, and depressed. Sounds like a great couple weeks doesn’t it?
At first, it’s not too bad. It’s really like most "easy weeks" following a twenty mile run. Recovery is critical and the mileage is not dropping by a large amount. You’re ok with resting because you know you need it after your final long run. But then your nerves begin to fray and doubt starts setting in. It’s about this time when every small ache and pain is confused for a broken leg or torn ligament or some other severely traumatic injury. Every twinge becomes a reason to think about postponing the marathon or a reason why it can’t be run. Every sneeze, sniffle, cough or pimple becomes a life-threatening virus or infection. Tight hamstrings, inflamed ITB, tweaked Achilles, plantar fascitis, black toenails, blisters, chafing, etc. can each inspire its own panic attack.
Next comes the depression. You start to really miss running. There are no more double-digit runs before the marathon. The longest run for the next two weeks will be just 6 miles. That’s it! The body is starting to recover and therefore has more energy than needed. You become restless and have more energy than you thought possible. But no "extra" running is allowed – so it’s torture! It’s as if you can feel the fitness draining out of your body. You feel fat and lazy and slow!! This restlessness often becomes frustration and perhaps a very short-temper. Please understand that this frustration will be projected at anyone and everyone within reach. It’s nothing personal; it’s the lack of mileage talking.
With only a week left, the self-doubt and worry kick in. Here are just a few things that run through my head every few minutes: "I’ll never make it. My foot hurts. Why did I sign up for this? My nose is running. My ankles hurt. I’m not ready. My leg hurts. My last run sucked. My knee hurts. I’ll die out there. My calves hurt. I’m getting fat and slow. My toes hurt. I shouldn’t have skipped that 4 mile run back in January. My throat hurts. What if I twist an ankle in my heels? What if I fall down these stairs and break my leg? What if I get in a car wreck? What if I drop something heavy on my foot? My shoes are dead, my shoes are too small, my shoes are too big, my shoes are too white." Ahhhh!!!
Screw March Madness, this is taper madness. Every day this week I've woken up with a new symptom that I'm getting horribly sick. At least 18 times I've had some weird ache or pain or cramp that convinces me that I might not be able to run the marathon this weekend. And then it mysteriously goes away when I stop thinking about it. I’ve had worst-case scenario nightmares nearly every night for the last month. I can't stop coughing for some reason. My head is full of allergy-induced snot. I'm pretty sure I've gained about 35 pounds. I’m an emotional wreck - Monday night I cried for two solid hours about absolutely nothing! And last night I only got 1.5 hours of sleep - I was freaking bouncing off the walls with energy all night.
I’m also finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything other than the upcoming race. I have to talk about it with every single person I see, whether I know them or not. I mention it to strangers in the elevator, on the phone, at the grocery store. I send emails to everyone in my address book with constant updates on my training and state of mind. I nearly bored our veterinarian to tears with my worries about the race and the weather this weekend. And then I harass friends that have run a marathon before asking them repeatedly if this behavior is normal.
My nerves are killing me too. Up until now, when people asked if I was nervous, I could honestly say no and believe it. I was confident! But now things have changed. As I look at pictures of the course map and watch the virtual tour online, I realize that it looks REALLY long! I mean really really long! Ack!! I know I have to be confident in my training. I know I can do this. I know I’m ready. I know I’m being crazy. :) Only 4 more days to go!!!