Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 in Review: The secret to my marathon success

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how and why CIM was such a big success for me, when so many other runners I know and know of, who are comparable in running skill to me, or often better and faster than me, have such difficulty with their marathon experiences. How could I, a first-time marathoner and certainly not a super-fast runner, break four hours and not really suffer too much doing so, while others who could kick my you-know-what in a 10K or even a half marathon, have tried, but not yet succeeded in breaking the four hour barrier? And many more, both above and below four hours, have writhed in agony while trying to complete the entire 26.2 miles.

I don't want to sound like I think I'm better than any of those runners. On the contrary, I know they are better runners than me. I do believe that my happy conclusion to CIM was a combination of preparation, training, mental state, and luck—all but one of which were totally within my control, and can be achieve by anyone. As for the luck—well, in some ways we make our own luck, but there will always be a certain element of serendipity in play.

So in case it is helpful to anyone, or hopefully at least entertaining, here are my marathon preparation tips.

Training. In some ways it probably seems like I just decided to run a marathon on a whim, because I decided to do CIM only about eight weeks before the race, and it was at that time that I re-designated my running as "marathon training." In reality, I had been marathon training for months, I just didn't know it. All throughout the summer and fall (some of which was training for my half marathon PR's), I was doing long runs up to 16 miles. Not every long run was that far, but certainly every weekend I ran 12-16 miles. I had a HUGE base for up to 16 mile runs. When I did realize that I must be heading toward a marathon, I was able to jump into a training plan midway, because I had already done the first half on my own. I really can't imagine starting a marathon training plan with 3-4 mile runs. I pretty much needed to be almost marathon-ready before I could even commit to doing one.

Speedwork and Tempo Runs. Because I had been working on shorter-distance PR's, I faithfully kept up with the speedwork and tempo work. Almost every Wednesday morning I did some kind of intervals at the track. They weren't as fancy as the speed workouts I read about in other blogs. Mostly I did 400's or 800's. My longest track workout was eight 800's. But I also did a long warm-up beforehand, so I could still make it a seven or eight mile run.

Friday mornings I did lengthy tempo and pace runs. During the summer, leading up to the Anacortes and Bellingham half marathons, I did some pretty fancy and fast progression runs (and other tempo runs). After Bellingham I simplified the tempo runs, pretty much opting for sub-9 minutes as my "fast" pace. My longest of this type was 12 miles with 10 at about 9-minute pace.

Work on your finishing kick. On almost every tempo, distance, and even "easy" run, I tried to run the last mile or two at a faster pace, preferably below nine minutes. I will admit that it helped to have running routes where the last portion is downhill!

Figure out your goal and target paces, and train for those paces. My hope for CIM was to finish under four hours (though I didn't have my heart set on it—more on that later). We all know that the pace for a four-hour marathon is 9:09 minutes per mile. But I also knew that I would have to run faster than that to make it in four hours or less, since the total distance is almost always longer than the "official" distance, and I had to allow for a bathroom stop (there was no way I could plan to run for four hours without a potty stop!). I estimated that I would need about a nine-minute pace to allow for those factors. Thus 9:00 (average) was my goal pace. I also figured that in order to get to a nine-minute average running pace, I would have to try to run faster some of the time to compensate for uphills and slower bits. I figured if I tried for an 8:45 pace as much as possible, that might give me a nine-minute average; so 8:45 was my target pace. Does that make sense?

I had some indication that 8:45 to 9:00 was a doable pace for me. While it was certainly a challenge to run that pace in training runs (why is it so much harder to run on your own than in a race?), a slightly sub-nine pace seemed to be an easy pace in races (where I was usually trying to go much faster). For example, in the Bellingham Half Marathon I ran an average pace of about 8:35, but around mile 10 I felt like I was running very easily, and saw that was because I was running 8:45-9:00 (I sped up).

I tested this in the Seattle Half Marathon, a week before CIM, where I ran comfortably at an average 8:50 pace throughout (totally an average, there were tons of hills that slowed me down periodically).

At CIM, all of my splits were between 8:45 and 9:16 except for the first (9:33) and the first one in the second half, where I stopped for the bathroom (10:33). And although my official pace for 26.2 miles was just under 9:09, my "adjusted" pace was right on goal (if not target). Here are the numbers. Pace for actual distance (26.32 miles) was 9:06. And if you subtract the 90 seconds (or so) that I spent in the porta-potty, that gives me an average pace of just about nine minutes per mile for actual running time. BINGO. It took a nine-minute average running pace to finish just barely under four hours.

Use other (shorter) races as speed work, tempo work, and to measure your ability. I never felt that my solo training runs accurately measured my ability to run at a given pace. I always run slower on my own (and faster in a race). So I used 5K's as track-like speed work, and my 10K, 15K, and half marathons as tempo runs. That is until the Seattle Half, which I used as a practice for running "marathon pace."

Practice running on tired legs. Although I never ran on too many consecutive days (see below), every week I had at least two consecutive running days where the second was "tired legs." Usually that would be a long run on Sunday and a recovery run on Monday. In fact, after several long run Sundays (including my 20-milers), I intentionally did enough miles on Monday to add up to 26.2 miles for the two-day period. Occasionally, like on weekends with races, I ran three or even four consecutive days (which really gave me tired legs by the last day!), but I didn't do that too often.

Respect your body by generally alternating running days with low-impact cross-training (e.g. elliptical). Most training plans call for running on five days a week, possibly even more. I have been running four days a week (most weeks) for about two years and I had no inclination to change that. I knew that meant I would not rack up the mileage volume that others might get. Honestly, 60+ miles a week didn't seem realistic to me. I had two weeks that were just over 50 miles, and the rest were generally in the 40's.

However, keep even easy runs relatively long. My minimum (and typical weekday) length was usually at least eight miles (although sometimes I dipped into the sevens if time was short). It takes me at least three miles even to get warmed up, and five or more miles to really get "in the zone." Why would I want to stop before that? And if I am planning to run 13.1 or 26.2 miles, I don't see any benefit to me in a 3-4 mile run, unless it is strictly for speed.

Try this formula for long runs (which I now sometimes apply even to shorter distances). This is it: The first five miles are warm-up, the second five miles are easy (meaning effortless), the third five miles are quality (maintaining that effortless pace when the effort has become greater), and the fourth five miles (when I got to that) were endurance. And in the marathon, the last 6.2 miles are the hardest 10K ever! (But doable!)

Determine your goal, but don't get hung up on it. There were a few half marathons in my past where I could and should have finished in two hours (or less), but didn't...and was a bit devastated over it. I wanted to be happy about my marathon experience whether or not I finished under four hours. Of course, by the time I passed 20 miles still on pace, the stakes for finishing within four hours got a lot higher, and I probably would have been a little disappointed if I'd let it go at that point!

Don't go out too fast! Okay, I know that everyone says that, but how many people really follow it? I wasn't sure how fast I would start out (a lot of that depends on people around you), but I was determined not to go any faster than my target pace of 8:45. Of course it turned out much slower, about 9:30 (along with the four-hour pace group), but that was something that could easily be made up (as long as I could hit my target pace for at least a few of the miles). I knew that I couldn't stay at that 9:30 pace for long, though, and after 9:16 in mile 2, I was under nine minutes for several consecutive miles after that, which was good enough to start averaging out to my goal pace.

Don't go out too slow! Remember, all the minutes above your goal pace have to be made up for at some point. If you are a nine-minute pace person (like me), you don't want to be in the position of "needing" to run eight-minute miles (because if you're not doing that in the beginning, you won't be after 20 miles!).

Run easy, run happy. This is a little counter-intuitive to achieving a particular time goal, but it is imperative to finishing with a smile on your face! Find the pace that you can run happily without much effort, and that you can sustain over a long period. That may sound impossible over a marathon distance, but it's not, if you've trained sufficiently for long distances. If you are an inexperienced marathon runner, like me, it is too difficult to gauge how much you can push yourself and still keep it up for the whole distance. Hopefully in your training you've figured out your easy pace (don't worry, your "easy" race pace will still be faster than your easy home pace—my easy pace for training runs was 9:30 to 9:45, and my easy race pace was 8:45 to 9:00), and with a little luck, that pace will be the one you need to achieve your goal finish.

I believe it takes a quite experienced runner to be able to successfully run hard in any given distance. I think I am there with the half marathon distance. I was able to run at 8:33 pace in Bellingham (technically, although that was based on running longer than the official distance), so I would feel okay about pushing myself to 8:15-8:30 (even though I might not be able to do every mile at that pace, I wouldn't burn out). However, I wouldn't try to run an 8:00 pace in a half. (At least I don't think I would.)

In a marathon, though, I am not ready to push my body beyond a pace that feels fairly comfortable. Luckily that easy pace (this time around) was, in fact, my goal pace.

Try to run even splits in a range. I was happy with my 8:45 to 9:15 range. It really did average out to a nine-minute pace, and the faster miles allowed for a little leeway on the uphills and in the last six miles.

Select your race wisely. I can honestly say that I have never taken the race course into consideration in selecting a 5 or 10K, and very little in selecting a half marathon (I am more interested in the race location than the course profile, I figure I can cope with anything up to 13.1 miles). But in choosing my first marathon I was very picky. I rejected the Seattle Marathon, even though it is local (a multi-marathon runner friend calls the Seattle course "awful"), and turned to CIM because of its description of rolling hills with a general downhill elevation (not really because of its reputation as a popular Boston qualifier). (I also felt that California was accessible enough that traveling there would not be a "big" trip.) Most people seem to agree, but not everyone likes the hills (either up or down). I heard a young woman who was running in my vicinity complaining about the hills and wishing to go back to Chicago! I, on the other hand, would not prefer a pancake flat course for a long race (although it's good for 5K and 10K, of course).

Train for your course. I didn't do any specific hill workouts (which I would probably do if I was planning for a steeper hilly course), but my typical running route includes lots of moderate hills, both up and down. I can honestly say that in both the Seattle Half Marathon (very hilly, including steep ones) and CIM, I was able to compare every portion of the course with my own "home" running roads. The road to Mukilteo, for example, is extremely hilly and steep (like the Seattle course), and I almost always finish a run with a downhill stretch (just lucky that way), which is exactly how CIM finished.

Consider carrying your own fluids and Gu. In most half marathons up to Anacortes this summer, I have never carried a fuel belt. I did in Anacortes, because it was hot and I was afraid there wouldn't be enough water. As it turned out, I drank water on the course and didn't need my fuel belt. But in most races I tend to forego water stations so as not to slow down "unnecessarily." This would not be a good plan in a marathon! But by carrying my fuel belt with Nuun in the water bottles, I was able to drink some on the course without getting caught up in the water station crowds. (I still probably didn't drink enough, but luckily it wasn't a hot day, so I didn't suffer any ill effects.) I got one Gu from the aid station and one out of my pack. I still need to work on my Gu-getting skills so I do not slow down while fumbling in my waist pack (that is partly why I didn't try to take the Gu more often).Bold

I can't really give any tips about fueling, since I am notorious for not fueling much; certainly not in my training runs, and very little in races. Fueling during races is something I should probably work on. However, I think my lack of reliance on gels during training runs has probably been good for me. Apparently my body has learned how to function on the glycogen from my regular diet and the fat stores in my body! :)

Think twice about walking. I hesitate to use this as a piece of advice, but I know that I would not have been able to maintain my pace if I had slowed to walk at all. My only stops were my potty stop in mile 14, and a brief pause to grab a Gu from an aid station just past the halfway point. Of course, I didn't feel like I needed to walk, so that makes a big difference.

Run your own race. Maybe you'll run with the pace group, maybe you'll run with a friend, but in the end, you are the one who has to decide what's right for you!

Have fun! Seriously, I had a great time, even when it got hard in the last few miles. Why would you want to do it if it's going to be a horrible experience?

And finally...

If I can do it, you can too! Remember that. :)


Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

VERY interesting post, Kristin. I am one of those people who eludes the sub-four marathon. I have only tried for it once, but I really should have been able to do it. In following your running, it seems to me that we have very similar pace. I believe that our half marathon PR's are pretty close (although, I think yours is a bit faster).

I was particularly interested in the fact that your midweek runs are mostly over 8 miles. I have a hard time getting 8 miles in before 7 a.m. Most of my midweek runs are around 6 miles. Maybe I should bump up my midweek.

I will definitely reread this post over the next 5 weeks as I get ready for Surf City.

p.s. I removed my original comment because I misspelled your name. I HATE misspelling someone's name....it is a huge pet peeve of mine.

runningcommentaries said...

Great post Kristin! I totally agree with you on all of it. Especially the part about being picky with your race-- choosing the right marathon is key!

I'll definitely be re reading this soon or whenever I decide to go for the marathon again :)

monicac2 said...

Great post! I am due to get my "runner's redemption" at my second marathon, which will be Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, on 2/28. Your advice is very helpful! I doubt I will go sub-4 (my half PR is 1:59), but fully expect to crush the 4:52 I ran in Chicago due to overly conservative pacing and a few other hiccups!

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