A couple of years ago I was “talking running” with a friend of mine when the subject turned to the marathon.  Specifically what pace you should train at vs. the pace you plan to race at.  I had not yet had my breakthrough marathon at that point which would come on a day with terribly difficult conditions at the Austin Marathon in February of 2011.  A day where finish times were effected by 8:00 minutes or more due to the heat, humidity and winds busting between 18 and 20 miles an hour.

I PR’d by almost 3 minutes.

I would take another 7 minutes off of that time in New York the following November, but in a lot of respects, February 13, 2011 was the day I stopped “running” marathons and started “racing” them.

Racing a marathon and by that I mean covering the distance as close as possible to the fastest your body will allow you to do so – leaving no extra time on the clock by being conservative, essentially running the marathon like any other distance.  Pushing it out there on the course to the point that when you reach the final mile your tank is on “E”.  Then it is a matter of willing yourself to cover another 5,280 feet on nothing but determination and will.

The more my friend Steve and I talked the more clear the message was becoming in my mind.  If you want to race fast, you have to train fast.

To bring your best on race day you cannot simply log mile after mile a minute or 90 seconds slower than your marathon goal pace and then hope that on race day something magical happens.  That somehow the two-week taper period or three-weeks for some runners, will all of a sudden turn your cadence and rhythm from running 7:45’s in training to 6:52’s on race day.  It just doesn’t work that way.

It was during my ramp up to Austin that I came to embrace the fact that racing shorter distance events, up to the half-marathon is a key element of a successful marathon training cycle.

For the Austin Marathon my planning was done for me as I participated in the Austin Distance Challenge.  A 5 race series that included a 10K, 10-Miler, 2 half-marathons and the Austin Marathon.

In preparing for New York City last year I ran three 10K races and the Denver Half-Marathon prior to the marathon.

For Boston it was the Ragnar ultra-marathon relay and three half-marathons.

During each of these marathon training cycles I would set PR’s in the 10K and half-marathon distances – mid-cycle – preparing and training for a marathon.

The method to the madness is that during weeks that would otherwise be “cut-back” weeks, where I would be reducing mileage from say 65-70 miles down to 50, I will throw in a race that weekend and lay down an effort with an intensity that cannot be matched alone on the Brushy Creek Trail at 5:00 a.m. by myself.

It takes the pageantry of race day, the presence of other athletes to push you in order to dig deep and run close to the ragged edge.

Racing a half-marathon at 6:22-6:25 pace is a workout that pays huge dividends during the marathon where your goal is to stretch that performance out from 13.1 miles to 26.2 at a pace only :30 slower.

Your body remembers the half-marathon pace, or the 10K race at 6:02 pace that you ran two months earlier and knows what it means to work hard when your legs are going away from you and are screaming for you to stop.

That is exactly what you will need to draw on late in the marathon – where over the final 10 kilometers everything hurts and all you want to do is be done.  Backing off the slightest bit of effort at that point is the difference between a PR and perhaps reaching your “A” goal or fading badly and losing a minute a mile over the last 5-miles of the race.

Part of the gains coming from racing during your marathon training are fitness related to the workout(s), but just as much – and just as important – are the mental benefits from those shorter races at your threshold pace.

As my friend put it rather simply.  “If you want to race fast, you have to train fast.”
Upcoming Race Schedule on the road to the Houston Marathon:

Nov. 22:  Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot 5-Miler

Dec. 2:  MADD Jingle Bell Run 5K

Dec. 7:  Lights of Love 5K Benefitting Ronald McDonald House

Dec. 16: Shiner Beer Run Half Marathon – Shiner, TX

January 13:  Chevron Houston Marathon – Houston TX – Boom goes the dynamite.

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