DIARY: First Marathon Test Results

Tonight I had my final test before the marathon, and managed to get away with some preliminary results. I'll have the rest tomorrow, and I can't wait to dissect every detail, cram it into spreadsheets and analyse away.

Here's Skeletor!!!
Emma ended up doing a much more comprehensive test on me than first intended, as she had some new equipment to test.

We started out weighing me, and the weight showed, as I had expected a further loss, this time another 2 kilos off since the August test, meaning I've dropped a total of 6 kilos since taking up running in January. This has all been good, though, as we would later see, as my power has not diminished, quite the opposite!
The big risk with losing weight to gain speed is that you usually trim off too much muscle mass as well and end up damaging your "engine" this way.

Emma did some very precise body fat percent measurements today, and once she runs the results against an algorithm tomorrow, we'll have the most precise measure yet. I have dropped from 18% to 15% to 12% from January to April to August, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's now below 10%.

The Treadmill from Hell
I did my first 15 minutes on the treadmill, and Emma took me from 11km/h to 14km/h, ignoring the higher speed zones for today, as they won't be relevant for the marathon.

I felt a big sluggish, not as bad as in August, but the legs were tired, probably from a whole day standing in the training room and my 5 kilometre morning jog today.

So I was nervously eyeing the monitor in front of me the whole time, looking for anything that looked bad, any sign of lack of improvement, or even worse degeneration!

When we were done, and I had wiped the blood of my fingers (just kidding, Emma is very good with the needle!), she looked on her flip chart: "That's some improvement, mister."

I'll only get the full results tomorrow, but the measurements left no doubt, my heart rate zones had dropped by huge increments, more so than the already good results recorded from April to June. My 13 km/h speed is now achieved a full 15 beats slower than before! And more critically, at 12km/h, we needed to get my lactic acid production below 2.0mmol/litre of blood. In August I was producing 2.36mmol/litres which makes a 3:30 marathon impossible.

The result was way better, my production having dropped by almost 100% down to 1.03mmol/litres, way beyond our most positive estimations, especially considering my period of sickness, the critical long run that I missed, and my slight tendency to over-emphasise fast training ahead of the needed long runs.

Emma advised me that this means an estimated marathon time of around 3 hours 20 minutes, but we decided to stick to the original target, since it's my first, and instead draw up a plan that'll allow me to go for glory in the middle stages of the race in case I feel up for it.

Fred Reeves, Fell-Running and Science
Fred Reeves was one of the first hill runners to fully embrace modern scientific methods in his training, and not surprisingly he won almost everything that could be won between 69 and 1980. He is also one of the few athletes from our sport of which physical measurements are available and I never hesitate to use them as a gauge and a far-off benchmark of performance.

After doing the first round on the treadmill, Emma gave me a ten minute rest, and asked if we could repeat the session, but this time re-test my VO2 max with some new fancy equipment she had.
The second was a real torture session, Emma clocked up the speed to 12km/h but then threw on a 10% ascent grade which meant at the end I was leaning forward taking huge strides, just clawing in to remain on the band. The sweat was literally hailing off me and my breath getting more and more asthmatic as the minutes passed.

Oxygen Consumption
When I was first tested my VO2 max (that's your body's ability to consume oxygen) was 4.315 litres of oxygen per minute, which just put me into the category considered "Talented Competitors". You often prefer a figure called "relative VO2 max" which takes body-weight into the equation as the fairest measure of performance (after all 4.315 litres are less useful for an 80 kilo man than for me).

My relative VO2 was 59.9ml/kg/min which put me just outside the "Excellent" category in the high end of the "Good" category, so not spectacular by any means, but a lot higher than the Western average of 40 (45 for men, 38 for women), and higher than most tribesmen living around the world who are on average between 55 and 65 (though only the Lufis of Africa are above 60 these days).
This figure must always be treated with caution as not all athletes have the ability to use their full VO2 max once they get out in the real world, it just means that you have a huge engine, you still need to make sure you can utilise it fully (which is probably my task).

Generally, it never changes much, not even with training, as it is closely linked to the size of your heart and your lungs. Some of the highest measured was Tour winner Greg Lemond 92.5 (although he admitted to having been drugged during this period) while the cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie holds the record with an astounding 96ml/kg/litre!
In comparison though, horses have 180ml/kg/litre and sleigh dogs 240ml/kg/litre!!!
Emma once measured a guy at 85, a skeletal lad, with legs as poles, who maxed out her treadmill and still begged for more.

Fred Reeves had a VO2 max of 79ml/kg/min, so I was completely stunned when I asked: "So how does it look", and Emma responded, "Well, you've gone up by quite a bit, it's 73!"

73ml/kg/min is way beyond any improvement I could have hoped or dreamed for in such short a space of time. Conventional wisdom has it that you can only ever hope for a 10% increase in this area. I achieved a 23.5% increase in six months, and I'm now confident I can push it up further.
I listened intently as she described that while such an increase is definitely unusual, it would make sense given that my first test was conducted when I was, in effect, still a "sedentary person", while this test sees the full improvement of very hard running that has come in the 6 months since April.

This propels me straight into the category classified as "Exceptional" (though, in the low end, as this ranges from 70-85ml/kg/min). My absolute VO2 max will then be around 5 litres/min, which just moves me into the range attributed to the rather grandiose category "The Best", or in more functional terms: The category that professionals will need to be in. The greatest absolute VO2 max measured (the least reliable figure) in the physically powerful rowers, who will max out around 6 litres/min.

No Excuses
I am absolutely delighted with these test results, in fact completely over the moon, but I won't forget the lesson that comes with it: if anything holds me back it won't be my natural physical attributes. I won't be the next Haile and there'll be many athletes better, but the sub-Elite should be within reach, if I can do my part over the next decade.

It's up to training, if I train, I will achieve, there is no excuses left. The only unknown factor that can curtail further improvements is the state of my muscular and skeletal system. My health seems to be superb, but will the rest of the body be able to take the terrible punishment that a fully professional schedule will entail?

It is some years away still, but until I reach that, this will loom as an unknown barrier, that I may or may not be able to scale. But, as always, you should never concentrate further than the next step, or you will stumble.
Carpie Diem
For now, I want to enjoy the moment, and the success of the training. According to Emma it's well beyond expected for 10 months of running, and we can stay of the gas a bit for the first month after the marathon, since we've achieved most of what a Winter Cycle is traditionally intended for already. Which means a little rest for me, and maybe a chance to get rid of the heel pain I've had on my left foot for four months.

Happy days, bring it on Monday! Champagne for Emma if I succeed....