Hailey Middlebrook: Marathoning for mortals (or college kids)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 6:06pm

I met Zach Ornelas, two-time Detroit Free Press Marathon champion and 2013 School of Education graduate, for drinks at Ashley’s on the Thursday night after his second win in Detroit. The race ran the morning of Oct. 18, the Sunday of Fall Break. While most of Ann Arbor was nursing broken hearts and hangovers from the Michigan State game, Ornelas was pounding the streets of Detroit alone, six minutes ahead of second place in a field of 4,000 runners. His finishing time was two hours and 20 minutes, running a perfectly even (and perfectly insane) pace of five minutes, 21 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles.

But the race was the fun part. And the beer that followed.  

We sat at a gnarled table across from the bar at Ashley’s, under a sign that listed over 50 craft beers on tap, almost all of which Ornelas had tried before. “I drink a lot of beer,” he said, pulling an Ashley’s gold card labeled “Friend of the Owner” from his wallet. “You need beer for marathon training. It’s great for recovery. Lots of carbs, lots of calories and it relaxes you, which is really important.”  

I think I hiccupped. On the spectrum of fun activities, running marathons and drinking beer seem to fall on opposite sides, with little or no crossover besides a congratulatory pint at a marathon finish line. But then again, marathoning and college life itself seem incompatible.

There are several hurdles for college kids trying to train for marathons. First of all, our age is a factor, since it’s widely accepted that the “ideal” marathoning age begins in our late 20s and continues through our 30s and 40s. Where most athletic competitions are dominated by us, the young 20-somethings (besides sports like gymnastics, where 12-year-olds kick our butts), marathons have historically been won by an older crowd. Records prove it: Last October, physicist and running blogger Graydon Snyder graphed the ages of the fastest marathoners from 1967 to 2014, finding that the average “peak” age for marathoning was 28 years old for both men and women.

So what comes with age? That old standby: experience. Marathons differ from other competitions because of what they require — not (relative) speed or fast reflexes, but steady endurance and self discipline, gained from years of plugging in miles and strengthening our bodies to last for the long run. So in technical terms, our moms have a huge head start on us, just because they’ve been on their legs for longer. But our age isn’t the real limiting factor in marathon training — it’s our lifestyle.

“In college, we put ourselves through way worse than a marathon,” Ornelas said, laughing. “Think about it. If you set aside time each day to train, eat well, sleep and be smart about recovery, you’re not going to damage anything by running a marathon.”

Ornelas trained for his first marathon during his final fall semester at the University, while juggling 40 hours of student teaching per week for the School of Education. He was no stranger to running, having already competed four years on the University cross country and track teams, earning All-Great Lakes Region honors his senior cross country season. “I was one of those rare runners that are waiting for the marathon to race,” Ornelas said.

He continued, “Compared to shorter, faster races on the track, marathons are much easier to train for.” Ornelas relied on Alex Gibby, former University men’s cross country coach, to text him weekly marathon workouts, like hour-long runs at marathon pace. Though Ornelas’s strong foundation of collegiate running gave him an advantage over the average college kid, it made him perhaps more prone to overtraining.

“Going too fast, too soon or too often, is the biggest mistake you can make as a marathoner,” Ornelas said. “When I first started training, I ran every run at six-minute mile pace and was going 130 miles per week, about 20 miles a day, always alone. I woke up at 5 a.m. to run before work, then went out again at 5 p.m. I was dedicated, but I wasn’t enjoying it.”

Overtraining wasn’t his only bad habit. Ornelas admits that he abandoned his social life, passing up nights out with friends who were visiting town to turn into bed early. He also neglected his diet — the marathoner remembers a particularly low point two weeks before winning the 2013 Detroit Free Press Marathon, when he was so low on money that dinner consisted of a can of soup, poured over a hotdog bun.

“Then again, my diet has never been very good,” said Ornelas, who holds the official cross country team record for chicken nuggets (50 nuggets in 14 minutes). “I don’t eat fast food anymore. Still, something is always better than nothing — even if it’s unhealthy, with how much we run, marathoners have to take in fuel.”

In order to finish a marathon, Ornelas recommends that you run at least 40 miles per week, 50 miles if you want to enjoy the race — a mileage sum that is probably more than many college students have ran before. Training is all about working up to the race: increasing your run length slowly, so that an hour-long run becomes comfortable; fueling properly and frequently, allowing your body to rebuild and endure; spending time recovering, giving yourself breaks from the stress of training, to focus instead on friends and family.

“Running is a passion, but it’s also just a hobby,” Ornelas said. “Go out with your friends. Recover more; go on long, easy runs. If your marathon is hard within the first 10 miles, that’s a bad sign — the best races happen when you don’t think about the miles.”

The runner finished his drink, a quick sip, like a stop at a water station. “Nobody has to run marathons,” he said. “I love it and hate it, but I choose to run. And that’s rewarding enough.”