In 2014 I ran my first ever marathon, something that only a few years earlier I never thought I would even consider, let alone actually do. My finish time was 4:33:33, and was a bitter-sweet achievement. At the time I was delighted I even finished, and I got so much support from family and friends, it was hard to be disappointed. However, my training all pointed towards a much faster finish, with my predicted time being around 4:08. All runners, regardless of ability, want to do the best they can on race day. So while my time probably isn’t as important to me as it is to say, Meb Keflezighi, it is was important enough to feel a twinge of disappointment, especially in missing it by such a large margin.
Before the race, I had a strategy to bring me in just under 4:08 as predicted. This wasn’t based on pure fiction; two months before the marathon, I’d run an 18 mile tune up in 2:47:25, an average of 9:18 per mile, and never dropping below 10min/mile.
That was a good 10 seconds/mile faster than my marathon goal pace, so the theory was I could manage another 8 miles at 9:28 to get me to 26.2. In practice, perhaps my training runs were too fast (more on that later). However my race day strategy did follow the rule of running slower than my average long run pace, which is what I followed for my tune up (see chart below). It felt realistic.
Aside from mile one, which includes the long climb up the Verrazano Bridge from the starting line, I started too fast. After you descend into Brooklyn, the crowds appear and the adrenaline kicks in – you literally feel invincible, with 16 weeks plus of training behind you, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. Coming up to mile 6 was a long stretch up Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, and there were constant gusts of wind up to 25 mph. On race day, don’t under-estimate the impact the wind can have on your effort and speed. Miles 7 – 10 I got back more or less on track, running through my old neighborhood, seeing my wife on the course, and the hundreds of cheering spectators.
Aside from mile one, which includes the long climb up the Verrazano Bridge from the starting line, I started too fast. After you descend into Brooklyn, the crowds appear and the adrenaline kicks in – you literally feel invincible, with 16 weeks plus of training behind you, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. This is a rookie mistake, and although everyone knows you shouldn’t do this, almost everyone does. I read somewhere once that for every 15 seconds you gain during the first 10 miles, you’ll lose a minute during the last 10.
Coming up to mile 6 was a long stretch up Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, and there were constant gusts of wind up to 25 mph. On race day, don’t under-estimate the impact the wind can have on your effort and speed. Miles 7 – 10 I got back more or less on track, running through my old neighborhood, seeing my wife on the course, and the hundreds of cheering spectators.
During miles 11 – 14 I started to struggle, and could feel it. At the half way mark, I was at 2:05, and in theory in good shape, but I knew I’d slowed significantly and the thought of ‘only’ being half way seemed an enormous burden. The half marathon marker is at the foot on the Pulaski Bridge, which is relatively small compared to some of the others, but the slight climb and exposure make it seem harder than it should be. Mile 15 and 16 I faded below 11 mins/mile for the first time, the Queensboro Bridge in the middle of that. It’s more than a kilometer long (around 3/4 of a mile), there are no spectators on it, and it’s the one part of the race where you feel very alone.
On miles 17 and 18, coming into Manhattan and running up 1st Avenue, I clawed my way back to 10mins/mile (for the last time in the race) before a slow but steady plummet to a 12:37 at mile 24. The only time I really picked up again was the final 800 meters or so running along 59th street, the crowds and the thought of my wife being near there gave me a minor lift at the end. At that point, I did feel pretty good and the disappointment was cast aside by the excitement of the finish. At least I hadn’t quit, and that in itself was huge.
So what happened? What can I learn for next time, and most importantly what do I need to do differently this year to get closer to that magical 4 hour finish time. Let’s start with race day itself.
Race Day Jitters
I am pretty prone to have an upset stomach on race day, but never before a race. Usually it’s in the 24 hour after a race, probably due to over consumption of carbs and hydration aids after the event, along with the pure stress and strain of running as hard as you can for an extended period of time. On the day of the marathon though, things felt different right from the start. I was up around 4:00am, which in reality was 3:00am thanks to the clocks going backward on the same day, and immediately felt tired. After a coffee and some oatmeal with banana, my stomach turned over – it felt bloated and unhappy with life in general. This didn’t really subside prior to the start, and the the net effect was I was pretty much unable to consume any fuel throughout the race at the start. I didn’t eat anything until almost 2 hours in, and at that point it’s too late. This didn’t stop my enthusiasm, I actually felt pretty good despite this, but at the 2 hour mark I really felt it, and bonked at mile 18 (very common).
While the wind was a factor, obviously this affected everyone, and so I can attribute perhaps 5 mins or so to it, no more. Under-estimating New York’s bridges was also a small factor. I definitely slowed down significantly on 3 of them, and while that only accounts for a minute or so of total time per bridge, during a 26 mile race, it has a larger effect that you might think. Finally going out too fast, given my fueling situation, probably compounded the other problems. Just giving up 2 and a half minutes in the first 10 miles may have saved me 10 mins in the last 10, so perhaps I could have finished 7 to 8 mins faster.
My marathon training plan was the most rigorous, and probably most difficult thing thing I have ever done as far as physical exertion is concerned. To give you an idea, during the 16 week plan, I ran 541 miles (including the race itself). That was more than half of my entire mileage for 2014, and more than twice as much as I’d run in 2013 and 2012 combine. I was, and still very much am, a novice runner. It’s easy to forget that some of the people I run with ran track in high school, or have been running for 10 or 20 years. Apparently for people starting running in their 30’s or 40’s, can improve continuously for up to 15 years! While that gives me great encouragement, it’s rather humbling to know even at year 3, just starting out.
I follow NYRR’s Virtual Training plan, but with a real coach (I will review this in a future post), and there are a few things now with hindsight I would change. Often I would exceed the plan’s suggested speed (although not always) and while it’s occasionally good to push a little harder on good days, it’s actually more important to conserve the energy and push through on the bad days. For example, if you’re supposed to do a 12 mile run at 9:35, and actually do it at 9:05. OK, sounds good right? But if the next day you’re supposed to do a 6 mile regular run at 9:05 and actually barely hit 9:20, the reason is the over-exertion during the long run. What’s more, the effect of doing that can’t be under-stated; it can last for days, and is unconsciously training your body to slow down under fatigue. Marathon training is all about doing exactly the opposite of this – to keep your pace down at the start when you feel great, and then keep going at a steady pace when you’re fatigued towards the end. I was unconsciously training myself to start fast, and finish slow!
Aside from the relatively minor indiscretions of knocking 5 – 10 seconds off interval splits on the track, I actually ran two races on days I was supposed to do slow long runs.
On September 28th, 2 weeks after my 18m tune up, I ran the Bronx 10 mile race in 1:25:10 (8:31/mile). A few weeks ago, I couldn’t even manage a 10k at that speed, but again it’s amazing what 10 weeks of training will do you for. Originally I was supposed to run 20 miles on that day, but my coach adjusted my day to take into account the race, and prescribed 12 miles (2 miles for warm up and cool down, plus the race) and gave me a target of 8:35 – 8:46/mile.
Not only did I blow away the target time (those 4 seconds are huge over that distance) but I stupidly went on to run the extra 10 miles AFTER the race, clocking in at 1:34:37, or around 9:28/mile.
The second time I did this, I ran the Staten Island Marathon on October 12th, only two weeks later. I got a PR of 1:56:07 (which still stands now). This time I was in the zone set by my coach, but again I ended up running the full distance prescribed in the original plan (prior to registering for the race) so actually ran 22 miles in total that day.
For someone with 5 -10 years’ running experience behind them, perhaps this would have mattered less. But I was naive, I really wanted to get the miles under my belt, and thought doing so would be better than resting. My biggest concern was not getting the full effect of running 18, 20 and then 22 miles continuously. Ironically I didn’t get that anyway, as I completed my mileage a few hours after the races in both instances, which while might give you more or less the same physiological workout, the psychological difference between running continuously for 3.5 hours, compared to breaking it up into a 2 hour and 1.5 hour workout, is huge.
One final thing I’ll mention is sleep. It’s a wonder of the modern world that we crave more hours in every day. There just isn’t enough time for work, training, rest, eating, play and all the other distractions of the avant garde. As such, we’re often sleep deprived, and runners are probably the most sleep deprived. After training, the next most important thing, perhaps even more important than nutrition, is sleep. It’s only when you’re asleep that the body really recovers from what you put it through when you’re awake. Muscle regeneration and other physiological changes that are critical to improving fitness all occur while you’re catching your Z’s. I have a habit of staying up later than I should, and throughout my training probably averaged less than 7 hours sleep a night, with some nights more like 5. Ultimately I don’t know how much impact something like this has, but from what little I have read on the subject, it seems this is something that can lead to long term exhaustion and fatigue.
While it’s easy to be critical, and I just spent 1700 words being exactly that, I really should be very proud of myself. Sure, on the day I could have done better – it’s mentally difficult to keep going when you know deep down you’re going to fall short, and although I often felt like giving up, I never actually did. However, getting through 16 weeks of training during a New York City summer at that, is something I’ll never forget, and it’s a great baseline for 2015. That is something to discuss next time.