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.
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.