Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Guide to the Marathon Taper

If you're not a runner, there is this thing that we runners do called a "taper."  A taper is a period before a race when you ease up your training and let your body heal for the big day.  Not surprisingly, the longer the race, the longer your taper.  (A taper for a 5k is only about four days; a taper for a marathon is usually around three weeks.)

They say that the taper is the hardest part of marathon training.

And that, my dear readers, is a load of crap.  In fact, the first thing on the list of "things that are easier than running 20 miles" is "not running 20 miles."

But that doesn't mean that the taper isn't hard; it's just a different kind of hard.  Whereas the never-ending marathon long runs are difficult in the "I could watch The Lion King with multiple bathroom breaks in the time it will take to finish this run" kind of way, the taper is more of the "I am slowly losing my mind" type of torture.

But the hardest part is that no one really gives you a guide on what a taper will feel like.  Sure, there are lists upon lists that give you a week by week description of how many miles to run, what to eat, what not to eat, when to poop, etc.  These are helpful but they don't paint a complete picture of the slow decline into psychosis that is a marathon taper.

So, as always, I am here to fill yet another gaping hole in today's society... this time, with a brief guide.  If you or a loved one is planning on attempting a taper any time soon, I urge you to read on.  Because a well-informed taper-er is a successful taper-er.

The Four Stages of Marathon Taper

Week Zero: Pre-Taper.  This week is the week before your taper, preferably ending with your last 20 mile run.  At this point in your training, you have put more miles on your shoes than on your car and consider a loaf of bread your afternoon snack.  You have long ago given up the ability to use stairs, and everyone you know has long ago given up holding a conversation that doesn't involve mileage and carbs.

Typically, you're pumped about your taper during week zero.  You figure you'll eat some Doritos, wear some cozy socks, and just enjoy all your new-found free time.

Week One: Naive Bliss.  The first week of the taper is the best week of the taper.  You can still feel the soreness from your twenty miler, and everyone knows Doritos taste better with a little bit of muscle fatigue.  You've only cut down your mileage about 10-20%, so you don't have as much free time as you would have liked... but you're looking forward to spending at least a little more time in fuzzy socks.

Typical thoughts that signal a week one taper-er include:

"Who said tapers were hard?  This is glorious!"
"I am ready to rock this marathon."
"Cool Ranch or Naco Cheesier?"

Week Two: Phantom Pains and Self Loathing. At this point, you are halfway through and have cut your mileage down another 10% or so.  Your last long run seems a distant memory and you're beginning to wonder if you are losing fitness and if your butt always felt so squishy.  And then come the worst part: phantom pains.

I've heard that the pain you feel during a taper is your muscles repairing themselves, but I don't buy it.  I think it is the mighty hand of the running gods taking their offerings.  There's always the chance that the pains are all in your head, but in your fragile state, does it matter?

Typical thoughts that signal a week two taper-er include:

"Another two weeks of this?  There will be nothing left."
"My butt is telling me yes, but my Hal Higdon training guide is telling me no."
"Who is Hal Higdon anyway?"
"Has anyone confirmed he isn't Satan?"
"So hungry.  Where are all my Doritos?"
"What's that pain in my hamstring?"
"I don't think I can take another week of this agony."

Week Three: Your Complete Demise.  At this point, you are hardly running any mileage and have completely abandoned all attempts at sanity.  If you are strong enough to have resisted the temptation of "just one little speed workout," you are a better person than me.

Thoughts of a marathon-week taper-er.

"Run?  What does it mean to run?  I don't know this verb."
"Live?  What does it mean to live?  How does one live?"
"Who am I?  Where is my Garmin?"
"Don't tell me I'm being dramatic."

... and then, for all of your pain and suffering, you are rewarded with 26.2 miles of freedom followed by post-race Doritos galore.

And I promise you, Nacho Cheese has never tasted so good.

Friday is right over there.  I can smell it.
I am exactly halfway through my Boston marathon taper, so excuse me if I get some crazy on you.

Want more tea? Have a second cup!
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