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A Dreamer's Run: Can professional training improve a middle-age runner's marathon time?

Lenny Bernstein was disappointed by his marathon time. But if the 51-year-old, for whom running is a middle-age obsession, got the same professional training as elite athletes, would he improve?

I've given myself 3:10 for the rugged run to Washington. I make it in 3:04.

***

The first blizzard of the week is going to wipe out my Saturday run of 18 miles. Some members of my running group decide to go at 4:30 a.m. today, Friday, Feb. 5, before the snow starts. But Centrowitz wants me to do a track workout because I missed one earlier this week. He is out of town, so Friday finds me alone at AU, running mile repeats. I am dodging icy patches on the track, and the blizzard starts about halfway through my workout, heavy flakes slanting into my face on the windblown oval.

By mid-February, I am in the thick of the training program: four to five runs each week, about 40 miles in all, plus the weekly session with Beven and the two workouts she has me do at home. In order to have a full day of rest, I work out twice at least one day a week. Because of the snow, I am running five to seven miles a day on the treadmill in the hot, dry, boring gym. I am constantly hungry and chronically exhausted. I sometimes catch myself dozing off at work.

Normally, I have only my own standards to meet, but, this time, I'm worried about letting down Centrowitz and Beven, wasting all the work they have put in, then telling the whole world how I messed up. The coach frequently reminds me that his "future" is in my hands. I'm trying to remember what I was thinking when I proposed this story.

***

After all these weeks, Centrowitz lets me in on The Secret: There is no secret.

Contrary to what I've read, he says, the infamous "Wall" at 20 miles, where marathoners run out of gas, is not inevitable. Preparation is the key. You don't have to be mentally tough when you start to fall apart if you don't fall apart, he tells me. Don't go out too fast or too slowly, make adjustments where needed, and there should be no crisis.

This is stunning. I have hit The Wall in marathon after marathon. And last year, I ran the National in 5:06 after projectile-vomiting at mile 13. The idea that I can avoid such misery inspires a surge of confidence. At a track workout with Centrowitz a week or two later, I realize that I am now warming up at 10 minutes a mile, a pace that once took some effort. Centrowitz claps me on the back several times, telling me I have wasted my athletic talent. But I'm feeling superstitious and don't want to talk about it.

The second week in March brings the two-week period when I cut back my mileage and give my tired muscles a rest. There is little more I can do to prepare physically. I savor my newfound fitness. I have lost eight pounds and taken my belt in a notch. I can do sets of 20 to 25 pushups. I gobble up hills that once reduced me to a walk. I am, quite simply, in the best shape in many years.

***

Race day, March 20, dawns too warm, at about 50 degrees. So many things can ruin a marathon, and heat is first on the list. The temperature will head toward 70 degrees before I finish, too hot for someone who tends to sweat profusely. I am up at 4 a.m. to get ready for the 7 a.m. start. I eat two waffles slathered in peanut butter and honey, swallow three Tylenol, drink a glass of orange juice and a splash of coffee, and begin sipping Gatorade. As always, the night before, I pinned my race number to my shirt, found some comfortable socks, made sure I had sunscreen. I catch the Metro in time to get to RFK Stadium for a short warm-up run.

Now, all I can do is wait for the race to begin. As I squeeze into the starting area with 10,000 other runners, I feel the familiar rush of excitement and anxiety. We share an unspoken appreciation of how difficult it has been to get to this point.

Centrowitz says I should hold a 10-minute pace for the first 13 miles and then, if I can, speed up slightly. By then, he says, fatigue will prevent me from going too fast. It is a conservative strategy, designed for a 4:22 finish that would beat my best time by 11 minutes.

I cross the starting line, and, to my delight, the 14 weeks of training kick in immediately. I run faster than I ever have, with less effort. My neck and shoulders don't ache as they often do. I am moving smoothly, except for some tightness in my legs, gliding on the flats, taking the hills easily.

For 20 miles.

Marathons, unfortunately, are 26.2 miles long. That's the distance the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce a military victory over Persia. Then he dropped dead.

I start becoming dehydrated in a little more than three hours. I have been drinking heartily at each water table, but soon my leg muscles begin to lock up in familiar fashion, and my pace slows from an average of 10 minutes a mile to more than 13. Every few hundred yards, I have to stop to knead the spasms from my legs and back. Panic and dread are setting in.

I am somewhere on the rolling hills of Minnesota Avenue in Anacostia with one card left to play. "The mind controls the body," I say to myself over and over again, a mantra I chose before the race, a common marathoning tactic for difficult times. It helps but only a little. Adequate hydration, it seems, controls the mind.

I don't remember much about the last mile except that I ran parts of it with my eyes closed. I remember my despair as the chance to improve my time slipped away. In the medical tent, the emergency personnel tell me I am gray and slurring my words. They put two liters of saline into me through an IV, and an hour later, I am fine.

Later, via e-mail, Beven, who once spent a night in intensive care after suffering heat stroke during a race, is gracious. Centrowitz tells me on the phone that larger guys are not meant to run marathons, especially in 70-degree heat. We talk about fluid and salt intake, what I might have done wrong. He kindly makes excuses for me, and in my disappointment, I let him.

Yes, I finished the race, in 4:39:12, about six minutes slower than my previous best.

Something to work on next time.

***

Editor's note: On April 19, Bernstein finished the Boston Marathon in 4:27:12.

***

Lenny Bernstein is a Washington Post editor and co-writer of The MisFits, a health and fitness column. He can be reached at bernsteinl@washpost.com.

***

MARATHON RUNNING: Fitness experts weigh in. Interviews by Holly E. Thomas

The orthopedist: Marc Rankin, Orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist

Knee pain and stress fractures are two of the more common conditions that can arise with sustained running. Running on hard surfaces, up and down hills, and on uneven surfaces all contribute to what we call "patellofemoral pain." Strengthening the thigh muscles and hip flexors can help maintain proper alignment of the patella and reduce the pain. Proper footwear is essential -- having flat feet can affect the alignment of the legs, causing the patellas to track outside of their normal groove.

The dietitian: Jim White, Registered dietitian and personal trainer

Carbohydrates need to contribute about 65 percent of the total diet ... whole grain bagels, brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes. Water [intake] must also stay consistent, especially [when] running in the heat. Electrolytes need ... to be supplemented before, during and after long runs. A sports drink with 6 percent to 8 percent dextrose solution or a sports gel can be taken after 45 minutes into a run and supplemented with additional sports drinks, gels or fruit thereafter.

The cardiologist: Alfred Bove, Cardiologist and emeritus professor

Marathon training is based on endurance and attitude. It's a long, continuous activity where the biggest impediment is mental. If you're doing it right, your injury risks are not very high. A marathon requires motivation for training and completion, and most people, if they're healthy and motivated, can do it.


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