I recently realized it had been WAY too long since I’d written a training-related blog post. And since I’m always asking the athletes to produce content of their own that didn’t seem very fair. So I set about thinking of a topic. Then I recorded this podcast with Eric Fernandez on his retirement from professional running. We talked about everything from how he first fell in love with running at 12 years old, to his years as an Arkansas Razorback and finally to his 2:14:09 debut this past December at the Cal International Marathon. And there was my answer. Even though it’s not going to be a total “nuts and bolts” post I think in many ways Eric’s journey is more what training actually ends up being than anything we’d perhaps prefer it to be.

And what I mean is this- training doesn’t always go as planned. I am definitely of the opinion that coaching is an art much more than it is a science. When Eric arrived in Flagstaff we knew a couple of things for certain–he had an immense aerobic engine…and he was prone to stress fractures. He had more of them in college than even he can probably remember. So I wasn’t naive enough to think that we’d have a magic bullet answer when he got to Flag. What we wanted to do together was figure out how to train at the highest level possible without going over the very hard-to-measure edge that would be too much for his bones to handle.

During his first two years we definitely had some highs and lows. We found that edge a couple of times and he did indeed get more stress fractures. I’ll spare you the gory details but it seemed like every time he was on the verge of showing his true talent I’d get that call or text that he had a pain and “it felt like bone.” But we never gave up and, eventually, we settled on a weekly plan that included 25% of his weekly running being done on the Alter-G Treadmill. He would also do two afternoon cross-training sessions (elliptical or aqua-jog) in place of a run. In what would later seem almost a predestined date, we began training in this style at the beginning of December 2015. Save for one more poorly timed hiccup in the form of a back strain the week of the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon in June of 2016 the formula was working.

We set the goal of a fast half marathon (something we thought would happen in San Diego) for the fall of 2016 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. But again, things don’t always go as planned. One thing I noticed in training for Philly was that Eric looked best at any workout that was more marathon-specific. And this wasn’t a new revelation. Long, steady workouts with lots of volume had really been his bread and butter since he arrived in Flagstaff. As we neared Philly and saw that the weather was not going to be conducive to fast times I could sense the disappointment in Eric’s body language. Normally, I wouldn’t want to see that from an athlete. You have to deal with the conditions as they come. But in this case I could hardly blame him. After being so close to a big performance so many times I felt the same disappointment. Even before the forecast though, and unbeknownst to Eric, I had already come to the conclusion that I was going to have him run the Cal International Marathon in December. Call it a coach’s instinct I guess.

So I broke my own rule and I told him about CIM about a week before Philly. Normally I’d want total focus on an end-of-season race like Philly was for Eric in this situation. But I just got the sense he needed to be excited. We talked about how great he had looked in all those long workouts and about how there would be the perfect amount of time to recover from Philly and then prep for CIM. I left it short of setting it in stone that CIM was a go. Instead we both agreed that he would need to run well at Philly to show he was ready. And of course “well” didn’t mean fast but it meant competing hard all the way for 13.1 miles.

The result was an extremely hard-fought fourth-place finish in 1:05:26 in super humid conditions. I was thrilled honestly. He never gave in an inch and that’s the type of willpower a marathon requires. I can’t remember our exact conversation afterward but we both agreed…CIM was next!

So here’s why I’d classify this as a training post. The best results in running are often the result of good old fashioned trial and error. Well, trial and error, followed by critical analysis that is. And sometimes the “trial” is forced and sometimes we choose it. As I plotted out Eric’s CIM training plan I had some previous data to make me pretty darn confident that we could nail this thing. Back in the fall of 2011 I was coaching my buddy Adam MacDowell who needed an Olympic Trials qualifier for the 2012 trials. We chose Chicago and did a 12-week build-up that culminated in a 2:18:47, 13 seconds faster than needed to make the cut. But then we had to turn around and get ready for the Trials in Houston 14 weeks later. As it turned out we made a very good decision not to rush anything. We took a full two weeks off, then ran easy for a couple of weeks and then had a ten-week build-up to Houston where Adam ended up running 2:17:37 for 37th place. And truthfully the Houston segment was even better than what he had done leading into Chicago.

That experience led me to the confidence I felt in allowing Matt Llano to run the BMW Berlin Marathon in the fall of 2015 with the 2016 Olympic Trials coming up the following February. Matt, though faster than Adam, was very similar physiologically in terms of what he responds to. So we followed the same sort of path Adam had taken four years earlier and it worked again. Matt ran a PR of 2:12:28 in Berlin and then, after an even better block of training, finished sixth at the Olympic Trials.

So back to Eric. Since it was a half marathon (and a relatively short segment) we only took one week off instead of two after Philly. That left us with ten weeks to CIM. The first couple of weeks were fairly light before we built up to full mileage in week three. In the end, we had six big weeks, followed by a couple of taper/peak weeks and we were ready to roll. Then, on December 4–after one entire year of nearly uninterrupted training, Eric ran his 2:14:09 with nearly identical halfway splits of 1:07:05 and 1:07:04. The race was a masterpiece!! And it was one of my very favorite moments in the history of our team. Always will be.

So if you’re the bullet-point type here are some quick opinions (take ’em or leave ’em):

– “Back-to-back” marathons are nothing to be afraid of but ideally you’d have at least 12 weeks in between them.
– Along those same lines, if time allows it’s nice to have a full training segment before your marathon segment begins that’s pretty darn hard. Just make sure you completely recover from said segment before the marathon training begins.
– If you are someone prone to injury don’t give up. Keep experimenting until you find the formula that’s right for you. If Eric could run 2:14 on 75 land miles a week, competing against athletes doing 120 (or more), you can accomplish your goals too!!

Finally- if you’re so inclined, you can actually buy the 21-week Eric “Big Dog” Fernandez Awesome Marathon plan complete with Eric’s recommendations for mileage no matter what your ability level.

Thanks all!