California International Marathon

Lieutenant Commander Spock is one of the most iconic nonhuman (well, technically half-human) characters in television history. When I watched Star Trek as a child, my understanding was that Spock’s lack of emotion made him really smart. I’m not sure if this was Gene Roddenberry’s actual intent in creating the character, but regardless, my impressionable young mind’s exposure to him left me with the idea that emotion is the enemy of reason.

As an adult, I learned that the truth—at least for humans—is more complex. It was the work of neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio in particular that cured me of the fallacy I’d absorbed from Spock. The reality is that a brilliant mathematician would be incapable of solving complex problems if he didn’t feel unsettled while the problem remained unsolved and didn’t experience a burst of  euphoria (“Eureka!”) when at last he solved it. People who lose their capacity to emote as the result of brain damage also lose the ability to think logically, because it turns out human beings can’t think logically if they can’t feel sadness, joy, and all the rest.

Be that as it may, in everyday life emotion gets in the way of rational decision-making all the time. I see this particularly with athletes. Consider, for example, a runner in his 40s who refuses to do a certain kind of workout because he can’t hit the times he used to hit when he did it in his 30s. Doing the workout anyway would help him run to the best of his current ability nevertheless, and on some level he knows this, yet still he refuses to do it.

As an athlete myself, I try to be vigilant in my efforts to avoid making similar mistakes, but I don’t always succeed. Here’s a recent example: I was in Rhode Island, visiting my parents, and I had an 18-mile run on my schedule. My brother Josh was also in town and planned to run 10 miles on the same day. So I decided to start ahead of him and run eight miles alone, then finish up with him. At the time I was recovering from a groin injury that was more sensitive to pace than to distance, and during the first part of the run I got a little frisky, running a 7:17 mile that aggravated the injury.

I should have bailed out right there, but I don’t get many opportunities to run with my brother, so I forged ahead, rationalizing my emotional decision by telling myself that it wouldn’t be a problem because Josh runs a lot slower than I do. Trouble was, Josh had gotten a lot fitter since the last time I ran with him, and he was joining me with fresh legs and some excitement of his own about running with me. And so, those last 10 miles were only slightly slower than the first eight and my groin became more and more painful as we went. Six weeks later, I’m still recovering from this boneheaded misstep.

One group of athletes that does a really good job of putting reason ahead of emotion in the decision-making process is the professionals. If you haven’t spent a lot of time around elite endurance athletes, you might assume that the biggest difference between them and the rest of us, psychologically, is that they are more driven, perhaps also tougher. But I have spent a great deal of time with the pros, and based on this experience I believe that the biggest difference is that the pros have better judgment. You might say they are better able to channel their inner Spock.

Just the other day I saw an Instagram post from Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario that speaks to this point. The post shared a bit of the backstory behind NAZ Elite runner Stephanie Bruce’s decision to run the California International Marathon (which doubled as the 2018 U.S. Marathon Championship) just four weeks after racing the New York City Marathon, a gamble that paid off in the form of a second-place finish and a new PR of 2:29:21. Recalling the moment Steph proposed this gamble, Ben wrote, “My initial reaction was that she was thinking emotionally, rather than rationally. She assured me that was not the case, however, and laid out her reasoning in a very calm manner.”

Ben didn’t get into the details of the case Steph made, but I can make some educated guesses. She probably noted that, since the 2018 season was essentially over either way, it didn’t much matter if she thrashed herself a bit in Sacramento, as she had the whole winter to regenerate and build a fresh base. She may also have noted that it didn’t much matter either if she raced poorly in Sacramento, as she’d had a great season and wouldn’t weaken her professional stock by laying an egg in a situation where she would have every excuse for so doing.

After the decision to go forward was made, coach and athlete continued to make smart, rational decisions. “We took a week totally off after NYC,” Ben wrote, “followed by a week of very easy running. Then we did 4 workouts in the 2 weeks leading up to CIM.” In other words, the Ben and Steph did not compound their gamble by taking an aggressive approach to training.

Avoiding irrational, emotion-based decisions as an athlete is easier if, like Stephanie Bruce, you have a coach. If you’re self-coached, making good decisions will require that cultivate your inner Spock—an internal voice of reason that plays the same role that a coach would play on your behalf if you did have one. This works best if, when you step into this role, you regard the athlete-you as a different person, someone whose best interests you have at heart but who has more at stake than you do. When I perform this exercise, I sometimes pretend the athlete-me is a character in a book I’m reading, a protagonist I’m rooting for but with a degree of detachment.

Have you ever been in a bad relationship that everyone close to you knew was bad and yet it took you forever to see the truth for yourself? This happens to almost everyone, because it’s harder to see things as they are and to think and behave rationally with respect to your own life than with respect to other people’s. That’s why cultivating an internal Spock is an effective way to make decisions as an athlete.

It’s a long process, though. Achieving the same level of judgment the pros have will require that you train yourself to take a mental step back from your situation each and every time an impactful decision is to be made, such as “Do I rest this sore foot or go ahead with today’s scheduled run?” or “Do I race that half marathon three weeks before my marathon or bunker down and train instead?” You’ll have to do this again and again and again before it becomes instinctual and you consistently make decisions that subjugate emotion to reason. But you won’t regret the effort.


On April 24, eight days after American running star Galen Rupp dropped out of the Boston Marathon in the 20th mile with hypothermia and breathing problems, organizers of the Prague Marathon announced that Rupp had been added to the start list of their event, to be held May 6, a day shy of three weeks after Boston.

When I saw this news I thought, ‘I can relate.’ I’ve come away from several disappointing marathons hungry for another try, and on three occasions I have acted on this hunger. Indeed, the phenomenon of the “bounce back marathon” is quite common, and understandably so. It takes a long time to prepare for a marathon, and there are so many things that can go wrong on race day that it’s unsurprising runners are often tempted to redeem a poor performance—whether it’s due to unfavorable weather, GI issues, or whatever—with a quick next marathon instead of sticking to the original plan of taking a break and starting a whole new training build-up. But are bounce back marathons a good idea?

It depends. Recently, an athlete I coach performed below his expectations in a marathon due to an ill-timed health setback that prevented him from eating anything on the day before the day before the race. Afterward, he told me he wanted to do another marathon as soon as possible in order to “take advantage of [his] fitness.” I talked him out of the idea, saying it was too risky. Subsequent events revealed this to be sound advice. Even after a week off followed by a week of very light training, this runner felt sluggish and beat-up during his runs and it took him a couple more weeks to get his feet back under him. If he had attempted a bounce back marathon instead of taking a break, it would have been a disaster.

As a general rule, attempting a bounce back marathon is a bad idea if A) you truly peaked for your last marathon (that is, you trained pretty much as hard as you could without overdoing it) and B) you ran the marathon as hard as you could and finished it. In these circumstances, your body needs a break, whether you realize it or not.

Two of my own three efforts to get right back on the horse after a disappointing marathon ended in injury. After the 2006 California International Marathon, where I aimed for 2:39 and ran 2:47, I returned to heavy training within a week and immediately developed a hamstring injury. Three years later, after the Boston Marathon, where I aimed for 2:37 and ran (and walked) 3:18, I started the Orange County Marathon 13 days later and quit halfway through with a bad case of plantar fasciitis. Only once did I get lucky, after the 2016 California International Marathon, where I aimed for 2:45 and ran 2:58 and 13 days later solo time-trialed a 2:49 marathon around my neighborhood. (Crazy as this was, I must confess it was quite satisfying.)

Bounce back marathons are less risky if you DNF your first marathon for a reason other than injury, as in these cases your body emerges less wrecked than it would be if you’d covered the full 26.2 miles. They’re also less risky if you don’t train to your limit in the cycle leading up to a marathon. I used to wonder how some of the top ultrarunners get away with competing as often as they do. Then I trained for a 50-miler and realized it’s because the body doesn’t need deep rest as often if almost all of your training is done at low intensity. I ran the Boston Marathon 15 days after my 50-miler and it went just fine because although the ultra itself had thrashed my body, the training leading up to it hadn’t.

There’s a reason nearly all professional runners specializing in the marathon distance run only two or three marathons a year. These folks need to be at the very top of their game when they compete and it would seem that two to three times per year is as often as they can achieve a true peak performance level at this distance, not so much because of that the race does to the body as because of what the training does.

Lately, though, this orthodoxy has been challenged to an extent by a few noteworthy mavericks. Last year, for example, American Sarah Hall placed fifth in October’s Frankfurt Marathon (2:21:21) and won the California International Marathon just five weeks later (2:28:10). And this year’s Boston Marathon was won by Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi, who completed 12 marathons last year, winning five.

I wouldn’t put too much weight on these special cases, however. The most important thing to keep in mind is that bounce back marathons are inimical to the goal of developing as a marathon runner. Although it is possible sometimes to turn around quickly after a marathon and perform satisfactorily in another one, you will not get better at marathoning this way. Developing as a marathoner demands that you take a break after each marathon, intentionally giving away some of that hard-earned fitness, and then start a fresh training cycle. This is the true way to “take advantage” of all the hard work you put into preparing for each marathon.

A friend of mine ran the California International Marathon recently. CIM is known for producing more Boston Marathon qualifiers (relative to field size) than any marathon other than Boston itself, and indeed my friend’s goal was to BQ. As a 40-year-old male, he needed to finish in 3:12, give or take, to claim a slot. He stayed right on pace through 22 miles, but then cramped up and faded to 3:18—still a PR, but not what he was hoping for.

Afterward, my friend and I had a conversation about what had gone wrong. He had no clue beyond the fact that he had cramped. I asked him how he had trained for his qualifying attempt. He told me he’d run four times per week: three six-mile runs during the workweek and a long run of up to 22 miles on the weekend. I told him the reason he’d hit the wall was obvious: He hadn’t trained enough!

I’m aware that some marathoners don’t have time to run more often than four times per week or more than 40 total miles in a single week. But this wasn’t the case with my friend. It just hadn’t crossed his mind to train more. I see this all the time as a coach—runners who could achieve more if they trained more set an arbitrary cap on their training volume that is not based on how much running they have time for or how much their body can handle.

Coincidentally, the day after CIM a new study on the differences in training patterns between slower and faster marathon runners was published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Science gathered comprehensive data on the training regimens of 97 recreational marathoners. To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, they found that faster runners trained a lot more than slower ones. The following table summarizes their findings.

Marathon Time

2.5-3 Hours

3-3.5 Hours

3.5-4 Hours

4-4.5 Hours

4.5-5 Hours

Average Runs per Week






Average Miles Per Week






 There are two ways to interpret this information. On the one hand, it might be looked at as evidence that faster marathoners are faster because they train more. On the other hand, the same evidence might suggest that faster marathoners tend to train more. I think it goes without saying that the first interpretation is true to a certain degree. The more we train as runners, the faster we get. But I think it’s also true that faster marathoners choose to train more because they are faster. Why, though?

Human nature is the short answer. People tend to invest more time and effort in activities they feel they’re good at. It doesn’t take long for each new runner to get some sense of his or her natural ability level. Those who have a knack for it are prone to keep piling on the miles in pursuit of their ultimate limit, whereas those with average or below-average speed are more likely to decide that their ability level is not worthy of an investment exceeding 40 miles per week. This calculus is seldom conscious, but it’s no less real for that. I’ve interacted with thousands of runners over many years and the pattern is clear: Less gifted runners typically hold a tacit belief that they do not deserve to train a lot.

Personally, I feel that passion, not talent, should determine how hard a runner trains. If you love running enough to want to find out how good you can be, even if you’re really not that good, then you should go for it. I’m happy to say that I communicated this message to the friend of mine who fell short of his goal at CIM and he has committed to step up his training for the next marathon. How about you?

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