Marathon Training – The Terrible Taper

Those who know me know well that I respond to structure. I assume it has to do with how my brain’s hard-wiring responded to being raised by a former Army sergeant. It’s how I am. For example, I decided when I started on my decades-long project to a read a biography of each president, that I would, of course, read them in order.

This is definitely an aspect of my personality that is engaged by and helps motivate me to complete marathon and half-marathon training plans. I use the plans for various running levels available on, but there are many others. They are all beautifully, elegantly, delightfully, appealingly structured. They say to do these certain things (run 5 miles on Tuesday, 10 miles on Wednesday, 5 miles on Thursday and 20 miles on the weekend), and, to the best of my ability, I do them.

I suspect that many people are like me and run for the pleasure of accomplishment. The night before I’m planning an 18-mile or 20-mile run, I feel excited and nervous. Giddy even. I know that what I will achieve the next day will be momentous, because 10 years ago, as a beginning runner, I would never have dreamed I could run that far.

And so the marathon training appeals to me in that way, too. This is my second marathon (I’ve run 14 half-marathons.), and I think what I value most about the experience is consistently accomplishing very difficult feats, and looking ahead and knowing that in the next one or two weeks, I will run even farther. Week after week, Hal Higdon’s plan delivers achievement highs to this accomplishment junkie.

During both marathon-training efforts, I have not missed a run, and have actually looked forward to the final building weeks of 40 miles in seven days.

Stacey Margaret Jones Reluctant AthleteAnd then comes “the taper.” This occurs in the three weeks after the longest run, during which the marathoner decreases the weekly mileage and the distance of the long runs. Hal Higdon has me working my way down to a final 2-mile run three days before race day Sunday. Tapering is designed to keep a runner fit but also rest her so when she crosses the starting line on marathon day, she won’t be fatigued from training, and she’ll be strong enough to finish the race.

Though I am devoted to Hal and never miss a run in the 10 or so weeks of escalating mileage, each time I taper, my marathon training train goes off the rails.

Of course the structure is still there, but the motivation to do more, go farther, push harder, achieve more is not fed by the taper’s decreasing mileage and “long” runs that are shorter than the midweek runs of just a few weeks ago. Instead of enjoying the fitness without having to test my endurance, taper running starts to feel like drudgery. A tedious 8-miler is worse than a difficult, but invigorating 16, if you ask me.

This year, I vowed to my husband after my successful 20-mile training run that I would have “a perfect taper.” I was going to do everything Hal Higdon said to do as close to when he said to do it as I could, and I was going to eat right and maintain “fighting weight,” instead of carb-loading like a mad woman for three weeks. (I didn’t want so many extra pounds it would take two people to haul my ass the length of the marathon course.) Of course, I was trying to make the taper challenging so I had a bar to rise to.

But life intervened. My husband was laid low by a nasty attack of acute pancreatitis and was hospitalized for six days. I ate like a crazy person because of my jumbled nerves and the need for convenience, and I missed four midweek runs in these final two weeks.

So on Little Rock Marathon day, I’m going to hope that all the training I’ve done before the terrible taper will propel me forward, and that the race will be as easy as anyone could expect any really difficult thing to be.

And next time I run a marathon, I really will achieve a perfect taper. I need to show Hal Higdon that I can do the really tough work-outs.

Stacey Margaret Jones, M.S., APR, (@sharkushka) is a market research consultant and a member of the inaugural class of the Arkansas Writers MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. She lives in Conway with her Chaucerian husband. Jones, a South Dakota native, does not play team sports, unless you consider cocktailing a competitive event.

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