...Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God's own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race black Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway....They'll speak our names in hushed tones, 'those guys are animals' they'll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on! ~Quenton Cassidy from "Once a Runner"As the soreness has been vanishing from my legs the past few days, I've had some time to take a hard look at the race, and in doing that, I've tried to figure out how I ended up doing what I did. There isn't one thing that made it all happen, or a big running secret that people will beg me to share. In reality, there are two things that made it all happen—training, and strategy. I hope this post will shed some light on this, and that you might be able to take something helpful away from reading this and apply it to your next race.
Before I do that, though, I just want to put this in perspective. Taking 67 minutes off a marathon PR is big, yes. But the amount of room for improvement when you start at almost 5 hours, versus 4 hours or 3 hours, is much larger. So, I'll say that I'm not expecting to ever make a jump like this again—if I kept taking an hour off my PR, I'd be in danger of getting Olympic Gold!
Returning to our narrative, success in the marathon is by no means guaranteed. When reading through this post, and contemplating the reasons that I give for my performance, note that some of it is colored by the drive that I had when I signed up for the 2010 TCM. Based on many metrics (my 5k times, my half marathon time, my marathoning experience, etc.), I should have shot for a 4 hour marathon—maybe even a 4:15 marathon. That wasn't enough for me, though. I took a big chance by setting such a lofty goal, and I could have crashed and burned in a spectacular manner. I understood this risk. When it comes to running, though, I tend to approach it as described in the leading quote. So, that being said, here is my analysis:
Weekly Mileage Increase
One of the most obvious sources of improvement was that I just ran more. I was able to put in significantly more miles per week than I did last year, and more miles generally equals better fitness (not always true, but it is one important indicator). I peaked at around 60 miles per week instead of the 40 miles per week that I peaked at last year. With this higher mileage, my long runs were now 33% of my weekly mileage instead of half. Why is this important? The quality of the long runs improve. I was able to do each of my 20 mile runs at a targeted pace (10'00", 9'30", and 9'15") without overstressing myself. Unlike last year where my 20 mile run left me out of commission for a few days, I was back on my feet and feeling great the day of each 20 mile run this year. This helped indirectly with my TCM performance by allowing me to accept three 20 mile runs, which is the next topic.
First though, here is a chart showing my weekly mileage since April. Remember, it's not one workout that makes the difference, but a steady progression in distance.
Weekly Mileage Chart. Marathon training officially began the first week of June. You'll notice the steady increase in distance punctuated by stepback weeks to avoid overtraining.
Number of Long Runs
When I said that one workout isn't critical, I lied—sorta. It's not a specific workout that's critical, but there is a type of run that is critical—the long run. A little theory first. We hit "The Wall" because we use up all the available glycogen in our muscles. Glycogen is easy for your muscles to process, and running is pretty easy when fueled by it. Once it's gone, though, your body has to burn fat, which is considerably tougher to process. When you're burning fat, you're body feels very, very fatigued because it has to work so hard for even a little bit of energy. So, avoiding The Wall means using your glycogen stores efficiently enough such that it can carry you 26.2 miles instead of 18 or 20 miles. That's where the long run helps.
Long runs should be done much slower than marathon pace. It's all about time on your feet, and not about speed. Running 20 miles trains your body to use glycogen more efficiently—including knowing when to burn fat. From the start of the marathon, your body knows that it has to maximize it's glycogen resources, so it will burn some glycogen and some fat instead of just glycogen. As long as your pace isn't too fast (another huge point, and I'll address that later), you can get by using a combo of glycogen and fat. It's the 20 mile runs that train your body to operate this way.
So, by doing those three 20 mile runs, my body was conditioned to operate as efficiently as it could as long as I didn't screw it up by going out too fast.
Continuing from the previous topic, starting the race too fast can really ruin your race. You run the first 20 miles of a marathon not to achieve your goal time, but rather to make the last 6 miles bearable enough so you can achieve your goal where it counts—the finish line.
I started slow. I didn't get caught up in the excitement such that I was busting out 7'30" miles from the start (the 7'30" mile would come later…). My body was able to cruise pretty easily at the beginning, turning miles 1-7ish into warm-up miles. I didn't even try pushing the pace until mile 15. So, when I got to mile 20, I still had plenty of fuel.
The fastest way to run a marathon is with perfectly even splits. You should start at the goal pace such that you run out of energy entirely the second you cross the finish line.
I can't do that. In fact, most elites can't run perfectly even splits at their threshold pace. So, negative splitting is the next best thing.
The dashed black line is the trendline.
Starting slow, I increased my average pace over the course of the race (see chart above). I had some outliers caused by aid stations, hills, etc., but the trend is most definitely downward.
This strategy helped me in two ways. First, it conserved glycogen early in the race, leaving me with the ability to keep pushing at the end.
Second, it provided a mental boost as I was able to pass people in the later stages of the race. The timing company that TCM used for this race, MTEC, is absolutely fantastic. The data that they provide is unlike anything I've ever seen, and they even provide quick access to your own personal finish video. But it's the data that I'm interested in right now, and specifically the number of people that I passed.
A bit of explanation is needed here. Each runner wears a transponder chip on their shoe. It has a unique number that is tied to each runner. At the start of the race, the runners cross the timing mats, and the system records that. At the next set of timing mats, it does that again. MTEC then looks at the order of the runners at each mat and determines how many people you passed and how many people passed you. An example: 4 runners, A, B, C, and D, start a race. At the start, they cross the line in the order A-B-C-D. At the next set of timing mats, they cross in the order D-B-A-C. So, Runner D passed 3 people and was passed by zero people. Runner B passed 2 runners (A and C), but was passed by 1 runner (D). This is exactly how MTEC's system worked for all 8000+ marathon runners. Here are my specific results:
Early in the race, I let people pass me a lot more than I was passed. That's exactly how I planned it. But look at my results starting at the halfway point—I took command. I was getting faster, and everyone else was slowing down. In the last segment—the hardest—I still passed 489 people! It is a HUGE psychological boost if you're passing people. I picked out someone ahead of me, then passed them. I repeated this over and over, and I got faster and faster because of it. This is how negative splitting helps you do well in the marathon.
Intervals and Hills
Beyond the number of long runs I did, the biggest change that I incorporated into my training this year was speedwork. Each week, I would do either 800 repeats, hill repeats, or a tempo run. The 800s and hills were particularly helpful. Why? I mean, I'm not going to be running at my 5k pace marathon ever, so why run that fast in training?
Speedwork and hills are really dynamic strength exercises. Running hills helps you run hills, yes, but hills benefit everyone—including the flat-landers—because it strengthens your leg muscles. Speedwork and hills also force you to run with better form, thus teaching your body how to run more efficiently.
In 2009, from about Mile 18 onwards, I shuffled. My feet barely left the ground, and my speed dropped accordingly. Not only did I hit the wall, but I couldn't even find a slower stride. I shuffled. Take a look at these photos from the marathon this year:
Katie took these photos of me at mile 21, just before heading up the last hill. I was tired and starting to hurt a bit, but my stride was still very strong. I was moving as efficiently as I could even at this late stage of the race. With about 0.4 miles to go, Steve snapped this photo of me, and there's no shuffling to be found:
In fact, I'm looking pretty good here
That's what speedwork and hills do. I strengthened my legs quite a bit, so that even when I was tired, I could still keep my form strong. When we shuffle, we're less efficient, and we get tired even faster.
One last anecdote on speedwork and form. I stopped at the first two aid stations on Summit (mile 22 and mile 23) for Powerade. I walked through each of these aid stations. Whenever I started walking last year on Summit, I would tell myself that I would walk to the next corner, then start running. Well, the next corner then became the corner after that, and the corner after that, and I did more walking than running. This year, I drank the Powerade, then started running right away. There was no coaxing needed to get myself moving again—I just did it. And that, my friends, is the benefit of speedwork and good form.
Quite honestly, I don't have much to say on this. My nutrition strategy worked. I drank adequately. I didn't drop any Gu packets. I wasn't hyponatremic. My nutrition strategy helped by not screwing the rest of my strategy up.
I don't have anything in the way of plots or photos to support this one, but my outlook on the race helped. I was going to get 3:45. I was going to blaze. Sure, I said that I would be happy with a sub-4 hour finish, but in all honesty, it was 3:45 or bust. When I hit Summit Avenue and knew my goal was within reach, nothing was going to stop me. I didn't care how much it hurt, I was going to keep running.
So, those are my secrets. Nothing groundbreaking. I hope that you can take something away from this if you're planning on running a marathon. Just remember, there is no wall.