For those of you who don’t know me, I live on toast and lattes. My idea of a healthy breakfast is to have one. Chips are my favourite food group and I forget to eat so constantly I’ve turned hangry into an art form.
I also love research. There’s nothing better for an obsessive personality than googling a thing you’re interested for 33 consecutive hours, eventually coming up for air covered in Cheetos looking like a disheveled mongoose.
Since I’ve been training for the marathon I’ve also been obsessively googling and reading on how to do it better and avoid flaring up an old knee injury.
Eventually I settled on the Maffetone Method (MAF). Dr Phil Maffetone, apart from looking a lot like Lucius Malfoy, has coached some of the greatest triathletes and runners the world has ever seen, people like Mark Allen, Mike Pigg and Stu Mittleman. Weirdly, he also consulted for another kind of endurance athlete: helping music legends James Taylor, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash withstand the rigours of tour.
MAF is about low heart rate and the right fuels. Low stress on the body, check. Low injury rate, check. The idea is to train below a certain maximum heart rate, and eating certain kinds of food for two weeks to flatline your insulin production and reteach your body to run on fat.
Fat is an interesting thing. Carbohydrates metabolise to create glycogen, sugar, which is stored in your muscles and liver then burnt as fuel during exercise. You can store quite a lot of glycogen, but not enough for a four-hour race, which means refueling on the fly. Fat, on the other hand, burns slowly. You have enough fat in your body to run to Geraldton. When you’re running below panting rate, you burn fat; when you’re gunning it, you burn sugar. On an evolutionary level that makes sense. If you’re hunting or migrating, you want slow burning fuel to help you cover long distances and stay alert to your surroundings. If you’re being chased by a lion, you want a burst of fast-burn energy to help you speed up and get away.
So, I strapped on my heart monitor and set out. That’s when I realised Problem #1. My aerobic fitness sucks. I was hitting the road most days of the week, clocking in between 6 and 10km at a reasonable pace and preparing for a 16km race which would start the list of competitions I’d decided would make good milestones leading up to the marathon. All that time I’d been pushing myself on the road I’d been working to tire myself out. By the time I got home my hands would shake, my face would be red, and I’d need a full day in between to recover. I’d wake up next morning and think how cool it was my muscles were sore – it meant I was getting better, right?
When I actually got down to it, my resting heart rate was 86bpm. Sitting on a sofa with my feet up, my heart needed to beat 86 times a minute to keep me alive. A good resting heart rate for my age group is 65bpm, an athlete’s might be closer to 50. Staying below my 148bpm training maximum was frustratingly slow, almost a walk, and as the days ticking by til the race I SHOULD have been preparing for, my nerves shot through the roof. So much for the zen of running. But the worst was yet to come.
The second part of MAF’s diabolical plan is a two week, zero sugar test. Two weeks of no sugar, no honey, nothing with sugar in it, no fruit, no carbohydrates of any kind (yes, that includes bread, pasta, anything crumbed, most things fried, in fact most things that taste good), no milk, no potato, sweet potato or corn, no strawberry Nesquick, nothing fun.
I really hate dieting. I hate it to the point I gave up 3 days into the only time I ever tried and vowed never again. I’ve always been reasonably fit, and as far as I’m concerned, if my jeans still fit, I’m good. For the first few days I rode the sugarcoaster hard. No energy, no motivation, cravings, psychotic fits of rage. The low point was asking my boyfriend to eat biscuits so I could watch. Chasing my escaping dog down the beach two days before the race left me winded and dizzy.
The night before the race, with 8 days of sugarlessness to go, I laced up my shoes for my first proper run in a week; an easy few kilometres in the late-summer evening light. The first 500m sucked, but as my body loosened up I felt my energy roaring back, stronger than ever before. Everything was easy and light, my feet skimmed the pavement and my heart beat evenly in my chest. It’s going to be okay, I thought, I’ve got this.
Needless to say, I didn’t have it. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour I chose the lower distance option – 5km, less than my daily training distance. It still sucked. I came in at 35 minutes to my stepdad’s 22, red faced, puffing and dizzy, but I finished. I woke up next day and gingerly put my feet on the ground and… no muscle pain. I walked around a little, and a thought popped into my brain.
“Let’s go for a run.”