One of the many lessons that the marathon has taught me at Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Pittsburgh II, Austin and New York is that racing 26.2 miles is not remotely like racing the other distances.

The marathon introduces for the first time the nutrition and hydration factor in a big way, where you are essentially racing and burning more fuel than your body can store and carry.

At the Austin Half Marathon a few weeks ago I ran the race without taking any energy supplements (GU or Clif Bloks) along the course and only taking 6 small sips of water to keep my mouth from feeling too dry along the way to a 1:24:07 finish.

I run many of my training runs up to 12 or 13 miles without any water.

But on Marathon day your body can only function for so long before you start burning fat as fuel instead of Glycogen (for most runners 20-21 miles) and the final 10 kilometers or so of the race is a battle.

That is why a pacing error in the marathon has such a greater impact on your race performance than a similar error on a 10K or half-marathon course.

You can simply “hang on” at the shorter distances and you may slow by :10 seconds a mile or so over the closing stretch of the course, but not the full minute or two minutes per mile that can happen as a runner struggles through those last 6+ miles of the marathon.

Turning a goal time performance or PR into not a miss by :30 or :45 seconds, but a miss by 10 to 15 minutes.

By practicing your fueling and nutrition during your long runs, a marathoner can more or less set themselves up to handle their bodies needs for the race, assuming that the temperature and weather conditions do not throw the athletes a curve ball on race day.

High temperatures when an endurance athlete has been training in mild or cool temperatures has a huge impact as the runner has not had the appropriate period of time to adjust to the heat – usually two to three weeks.

Wind is another factor that dehydrates runners more than a calm day, even though the temperature may “feel cooler” due to the cooling effect of running into a breeze.  It is on those race days where a marathoner needs to drink even more frequently than usual to make sure they do not become dehydrated.

But the number one mistake made by more marathoners than any other is pacing.

Going out “too fast” is the death penalty for a goal time marathon.  There is no overcoming this mistake.  You will crash and crash hard.

The challenge of course is determining what your “ideal pace” or “goal pace” for the given race and race course should be.

If we assume a cool day, 45-55 degrees with light, variable winds and a sound training cycle that deposits a healthy marathoner to the starting line.  Then the race becomes one of strategy and course management.

Starting controlled over the first two miles, then increasing your effort to get “on pace” is the soundest of strategy.  The most efficient way to run a marathon is to meter out even effort (and pace) over every individual mile of the course.

Running 26.2 miles at 6:52 pace = 2:59:59

Running each mile spot on 6:52 would be the “best” way to get from Hopkinton to Boston.

But the reality of the situation is, I may not run a single mile at 6:52 pace exactly as Boston is not a flat marathon course.  In fact, there are really only two miles that could be considered “somewhat flat” – those being mile 6 and mile 8.

Most of the other “neutral” miles, that neither help nor hurt the marathoner from an individual mile time perspective are miles that feature an uphill portion and an equally steep downhill portion creating a net gain/loss close to zero.

On a course like Boston putting together a race plan is important.  Much like the Austin Half Marathon which is a hilly, monster of a course – I try to have certain benchmarks or time goals for the 5K and 10 mile checkpoints to make sure I am “on-pace”.

This allows me to run an “even effort” race, without fixating on my watch and worrying every time my pace falls above or below 6:52 min./mile or in the case of the half-marathon 6:23 min./mile.

There is a great prediction tool available at Runnersconnect.net that takes into account the grade and length of each hill on the Boston Course and assigns a mile score for difficulty.

You simply put in your Goal Time to the calculator – and it will let you know at what pace you should plan to run each individual mile to stay on track.

Pacing Strategy for Boston - 2:59:59

I won’t look at each individual mile per se, but this will allow me to break the race in Boston down into 4 chunks:

Miles 1 – 3:          20:43

End of Mile 8:      54:48

End of Mile 15:    1:42:39

End of Mile 21:    2:24:20

If we can crest Heartbreak Hill at the end of Mile 21 in approximately 2:24 and change, we have a legitimate shot at coming in under 3 hours.

Our final 5 miles would need to be run at:  6:43, 6:54, 6:41, 6:52, 6:58 with a closing push over the final 2/10 of a mile at 6:55 pace.

With significant downhill stretches over the final 5 miles of the course, the key will be to conserve enough energy to dig deep and push pace to the finish line.

Mistakes made early in the race, such as running an opening three miles too quickly, letting the downhill miles that lead to Newton, MA at mile 16 drop our pace too quickly and beat our quads to a pulp will rob us of our ability to close the race out strong.

Instead of running sub 7:00 minute miles at the end of the race, we may be struggling to run sub 8:00 minute miles.  Turning a 2:59:59 attempt into a 3:05 marathon or worse.  Potentially much worse.

These are facts, not opinion.  I know them to be true like I know that the sun is hot, water is wet and nothing tastes better after yard work than a cold beer.

The key for me is to start ingraining these times into my brain over the course of the next 6 weeks so that on Marathon Monday there is no last minute second-guessing or “going with it” as I run easy over the opening miles on rested legs and “feel great!”.

Everyone feels great at the start of the marathon.

I plan on feeling great at the end.

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Comments
  1. Leslie says:

    Excellent post Joe. My race strategy for the London Marathon this April is something that I really need to start thinking about. I wish there was a Runners Connect tool for London as well although it may be more difficult to work out as it wasn’t hills that affected my pacing the last time it was the somewhat less predictable congestion!

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Hi Leslie! So excited for you running London this year. That race is such a tough one for us yanks to get into – but it is on my bucket list for sure one of these years. A race of that distance is so critical to have a sound plan – you can’t just “wing it” out there and hope for a Personal Best. The more time you can spend getting familiar with the course, the turns, the tangents – when to be on what side of the road to set-up the next corner etc. – will all help your confidence level and your race day performance.

      Good thing about Boston if there is anything “good” about that course from a time perspective – there are basically three turns the entire way. Two of them in the last 4/10 of a mile ….

  2. ttrodriguez says:

    Great post! I’m running Boston for the first time this year and have really high expectations for my finish time (3:20). The RunnerConnect tool is awesome and I’m really glad you posted it. Over these next seven weeks, I’m really going to focus on nutrition, fueling, and resting properly. Good luck with these last weeks of training and maybe I’ll see you in Beantown =)

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Congratulations on your first Boston! You will never forget the experience. If I had any single tip to share for your first time on that course – is run the downhill start smart. It might be too late to really run a lot of downhill repeats with only 6+ weeks to go – but the smarter and “easier” you run the first 14 miles will give you the best chance to hit that goal time. It’s not the climbing that hurts you at Boston – it is all the pounding on the quads that it takes to reach the hills. If your quads are beaten up, you are at the mercy of the Newton Hills.

      Best to you and the rest of your training cycle! Let’s catch up after you get your bib number and you know what corral you are racing out of.

      • ttrodriguez says:

        Wow, thanks for all the great info! I will definitely remember this come April 16th. Fortunately, where I run, there are a lot of hills so it’s been good for the training.

        I’d love to catch up in Boston so i’ll definitely be in touch! Best of luck to you during this last bit of training and until Boston…. =)

  3. Robin Brunet says:

    Another great post and so helpful. This is my first Boston, and perhaps my only so want to run it right. I don’t want to make a strategic error that will have me run a bad race. While I am concerned about my time, my main goal is to have a clean race and not end up doing the death march in the latter part of the course. Your information here is fabulous. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Hi Robin! Congrats on Boston, you are going to have a blast. Running those first 15-16 miles in control is really the key to the whole race. Yeah, there are 4 hills to contend with, but you’ve run longer and steeper hills before. There is not doubt about that. But it is all the work you do to GET TO THE HILLS at Boston that makes that course a tough one. Run easy early, kick butt late. You are going to do great!

  4. Erin Ruyle says:

    There is nothing worse than starting out too fast in a marathon and then crashing hard…nothing worse (as I’m having flashbacks from the Austin Marathon last year). Thanks for sharing the Runners Connect tool – that’s really cool! I almost wish I was spectating Boston rather than running it to see you crush that 3 hour mark!

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Erin – how true is that? Hanging on by a thread at the end of a marathon is no way to run one. I’m hoping to finally run a “near-perfect” race in Boston this year. 7th time’s the charm right?

  5. traintotri says:

    Nice post, Joe. There’s so much more strategy involved in the marathon than with shorter races. With such a complicated pacing strategy, will you carry some kind of pace/split guide with you, or just base your race on perceived effort and the knowledge of what’s coming? I’ll be running the Shamrock marathon, and with such a flat course my main goal is to lock in the pace early and stick with it!

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Hi JT! Thanks for the message – you are in the homestretch right now tapering for Shamrock. A great time to finalize your race plan. Hope we get a chance to hook up out there post-race (I’m just running the half as my final Boston tune-up).

      I won’t have split by split points written down, but instead have a 5k, 8 mile, 10 mile, half-way and mile 21 “checkpoint” time written on my forearm.

      I wont fixate on the watch, but will be monitoring my splits and running mostly by feel.

      For a flat course, where even splits are the goal, you might want to check out Pacetat.

      They have a temporary tattoo product that is pretty great, it computes your individual mile splits for various goal times, and each split is equal. They cost about $2 if I remember correctly.

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