Now that I have bored you with my running history, let me try to be specific as to how exactly I was able to break through and take a huge chunk off of my marathon time. First of all, I will be frank in saying that at least some of my fitness carried over from training for and completing Ironman WI last year. I took my body to a whole new level of fitness, and on some level I know that has helped me to become a faster runner. However, the following are things I did that are specific to training for the 2010 WI Marathon:
1. Treadmill Intervals. I would say that 95% of my speed work in training for this marathon was on the treadmill and not the track. Why? It forced me to run faster. I didn’t trust myself to be able to keep the paces I wanted if left to my own devices on the track.
My interval session every week consisted of repeats of various distances, from 400′s to 1600′s. The training plan I followed based the goal times for these intervals off of my 10k pace. Since I have never actually run a 10k race (except on a gnarly trail), I think I estimated that pace to be somewhere around 7:30/mile. The training plan would say something like 12×400 at 10k pace minus 55-60 secs. Therefore I needed to run my 400′s at 6:30-6:35 pace.
On the treadmill this is easy. Ok, not easy in a physical sense, but easy to make sure you are on pace. Crank the thing up, then run your ass off or fall off and look like a total dufus. I usually made a custom playlist the night before these workouts to keep me pumped up. Though some of these workouts were killer and I wanted to die at times, I always felt an awesome sense of accomplishment when I was done.
2. The tempo run. These workouts really gave me confidence. They were anywhere from 4-10 miles, and just like the intervals, the training plan gave me goal paces to hit depending on the distance. Again this was based on my estimated 10k pace. There were days when I headed out not believing that I could sustain the goal pace, but I almost always did, often times even faster. I did all of these runs outside, and used the auto-lap feature on my Garmin just to check each mile split. It was motivating to hear the watch beep at the end of each mile and find that I was running faster than I thought.
3. The long run. I did almost every long run at or better than marathon goal pace (8:23/mile). This is the opposite of what many training plans tell you to do, many of them prescribing a long run pace that is 1-2 minutes slower than marathon goal pace. The plan I followed would have had me doing my long runs at 8:30-8:45 pace. I did this in the beginning, but as the weeks went by I found I was comfortable running faster, so I went with it. It helped my body to know exactly what it felt like to run faster for longer distances.
4. I ran with a faster friend. This was key for me. I did almost every long run, as well as the marathon itself with my friend James, who is much faster than me. During our long runs, I automatically ran faster (while he was still running super-easy I’m sure). Having him run with me at the marathon was invaluable, and I don’t know if I could have done it alone. It would have been much tougher for sure.
5. Bank time early. This also goes against conventional wisdom, which emphasizes not going out too fast in the race. My goal was to start the race running at an 8:10-8:15 pace, banking 8-13 seconds every mile that I could give back at the end if I needed to. I knew it would be a fine line between pulling this off and really going out too fast and crashing. However, I know myself and how I typically feel in the final miles of a marathon. I can’t see being able to pick it up at the end, or even holding pace.
In reality, I went out much faster than this, but I felt great so I went with it. By mile 20 I had banked almost 4 minutes, and I took great comfort in knowing that I could slow down if I needed to (which I did), and still meet my goal. At the end I felt awful and had absolutely nothing left, but I made it. I had no rush of endorphins to carry me across the finish line. I was completely spent, but that was the plan. I’m not saying it was a good or bad plan, but it is what worked for me.
So there you have it. That’s how I went from a 3:56:31 to a 3:37:49 in exactly one year. Hopefully some of these insights can help you in your training for an event or just running in general. Once again, they are things that worked for me, and not all of them will likely work for everyone. For example, if you are a beginner, it is probably not a good idea to do your long runs faster than marathon goal pace, as it will take you too long to recover from those harder efforts. I have noticed that over the past 7 years of running and doing triathlons, my body can recover from long workouts much faster than it used to. It took me a full 6 years to get to the point where I feel I am making real solid improvements, and my running is where I want it to be.
A few years ago if someone told me I would complete an Ironman and qualify for the Boston Marathon, I would have laughed in their face. Now I am wondering what else is possible…