Marathon Lessons Learned

Toirtise & Hare - Boston Marathon 2008

Below are my marathon lessons learned over the course of the last several races. As I sharpen my pencil and get out a new training log, it helps me to look back and see what I could have done differently and better. And sometimes by writing down the facts that I don’t want to see, it erases the excuses from races past and helps me focus on what I need to do for future races.

I’ve tried to highlight one marathon lessons learned from each of my nine races below in the hopes that it might help you with your marathon training. Sadly, many of these lessons are repeats…like the picture above depicts…setting the right pace can be my biggest hurdle! I’ve also listed my race day weight and average training mileage along with my race time to give some added insight into these factors and their impact on performance.

As you’ll read from the stories below, the factors that seem to impact marathon performance the most for me are listed below:

  1. Body Weight: I don’t want to admit it, because I hate cutting back on the treats…but it’s true. My biggest marathon lessons learned is that losing a couple of pounds will also help shed some invaluable marathon minutes!!
  2. Start Slow: Starting slow is the best investment you can make for a PR.
  3. Realistic Goal Pace: Having a realistic pace based on your training and sticking to it are critical to race day success.
  4. Race Day Temp: Low 50s is perfect for a PR. The higher it gets, the more minutes you need to add.
  5. Positive Attitude: Having a goal and envisioning success can be just as important as the actual training itself. As the lactic acid pours into your legs and your brain floods you with reasons to stop, a reassuring phrase, goal or vision can pull you through.
  6. Training Intensity: Intervals, hills, and pace runs are tough…but they make you faster…period.
  7. Mileage: Many runners put a much higher value on training volume than I do. I’m sure that I’d run better times if I ran twice the weekly mileage, but I’m not sure it would be worth the investment for the few minutes it would shave off.
  8. The Shoes: I went overboard on this for my last marathon and it made me ponder the actual impact of lightweight shoes. For me and my bodyweight, I think a 10-12 ounce shoe is the right mix of performance and cushion. I’m not so sure that lighter always equals faster when it comes to marathon running shoes.

If you’re wondering how I reached the conclusions above, here’s my story…

1992 Marine Corps Marathon

Age: 20 

Time: 3:53:48 
Weight: 155 
Weekly Mileage: 25 (avg.)

This was my first marathon and it would be awhile before I’d forget the experience and try again. I signed up with some friends in college and eventually got my long run up to 17-18 miles. On race day, I went out quickly and wanted to sustain a 7:15 - 7:30 pace. This strategy held up nicely until the 18 mile mark (Hayne’s Point), where I completely bonked. Having never experienced the bonk before, I was utterly miserable and finished the last 8 miles of the race with a combination of running / walking. 

Marathon lessons learned: Run longer in training & Go slower at the start. I’m convinced that if I ran a few minutes slower at the start, I would have finished with a 15 minute faster time!

2001 Philadelphia Marathon

Age: 29 
Time: 3:51:26 
Weight: 165 
Weekly Mileage: 28 (avg.)

This marathon was my get-back-in-shape goal. Since college I had put on some weight and got totally disgusted with myself…this was my comeback. I trained to finish the marathon smiling and in one piece. Mission Accomplished. I trained with a modified version of Jeff Galloway’s plan, but I skipped a few mid-week runs here and there and focused on the long run. I walked at water stops and stayed positive the whole race. 

Marathon lessons learned: Attitude is important! I stayed positive and focused on the finish. In the later miles, I took the aching muscles in stride and didn’t let myself wallow in self-pity. Staying positive can make up several minutes of marathon race time!

2005 Philadelphia Marathon

Age: 33 
Time: 3:21:14 
Weight: 160 
Weekly Mileage: 28 (avg.)

Marathon #3 would be my first of many attempts at a Boston Qualifier (BQ). I followed Jeff Galloway’s 3:10 plan almost to the letter. I signed up for the ClifBar 3:10 pace group and was ready to go. When the gun went off I was in the port-o-john line?! I started the race in a frantic chase to catch up to the 3:10 pacer. After 8 consecutive sub-7-minute miles I finally caught him! And by mile 15, I’d eventually lose him?!

Marathon Lessons Learned: Realistic pace-setting is critical. I was so determined to catch the 3:10 pacer that I forgot the impact of a quick start. I’m convinced that I was in good enough shape for a BQ had I set a better starting pace.

2006 Los Angeles Marathon

Age: 33 
Time: 3:22:54 
Weight: 152 
Weekly Mileage: 32 (avg.)

I was now on a mission. This marathon (LA) I used for a training run. I was on the west coast for a trip and the timing lined up…so I figured, “Why not?”. I purposely lined up by the 8:00 pace group at the start and would not allow myself to go faster than an 8-minute pace for the first several miles. I ran the whole race (no walking) and high-5ed thousands of fans. I had a really fun race and finished with a comfortable pace. This was my lightest body weight in many years and I could feel the difference. I wouldn’t fully appreciate the impact of body weight on race time until my 2007 marathons.

My LA marathon lessons learned:

lighter = faster and a slow-start works!

2006 Delaware Marathon

Age: 33 
Time: 3:12:50 
Weight: 154 
Weekly Mileage: 32 (avg.)

The DE marathon was going to be my BQ race. It’s a flat course. I was uninjured and in the best shape of my life. I ran a 10-mile race 2 weeks before the marathon and maintained a 6:30 pace, so at the last minute I revised my marathon goal to sub-3:05 and started the race at a sub-7 pace (I know…you can say it…”Dummy!”). The temperature was hotter than I expected and it got up into the 60s by mid-race. And it was just about this time when the sub-7 pace was getting hard to maintain, so I figured that I had banked those minutes and could throttle back some.

Unfortunately, I fell a few minutes short and shamefully have to write down the same marathon lessons learned as marathon #1 & #3. Start Slow!!

2006 Philadelphia Marathon

Age: 34 
Time: 3:10:54 
Weight: 155 
Weekly Mileage: 32 (avg.)

For this race, I was bound and determined to go out slow at the start. I got to the race earlier than normal and lined up with the 3:10 pacer almost 40 minutes before the start of the race. I would not allow myself to pass the pacer until 13 miles (which I did). And from the 13 mile mark until the 23 mile mark, I stayed ahead of him. I took one walk break at the 24 mile water stop and almost let myself slip into a pity party about my aching legs. I looked up and saw the pacer’s balloons getting farther away…I set out to get him. While I’d love to attribute my race performance and ultimately my PR to training or attitude, the reality is that the weather has a lot to do with it. The temperature hovered in the low 50s and it was partly cloudy and calm. It was perfect. 

My marathon lessons learned for Philly ’06: Slow start pays off, but there are factors that you can’t control (like weather) that can have a huge positive or negative impact on finish time.

2007 Delaware Marathon

Age: 34 
Time: 3:24:01 
Weight: 160 
Weekly Mileage: 28 (avg.)

I ran this race because I didn’t want the Spring to go by without training for something. I had no real time goal…I just wanted to stay in shape. I would realize after the Philly ’07 marathon that I don’t do so well with loose goals! The race was fun, uneventful and because I had no real time pressure, I walked at most of the water-stops in the latter part of the race. And while I know that you don’t have to PR in every race

Marathon lessons learned: Have a goal pace. I really floundered without a specific goal. This aspect would be amplified in my Fall marathon.

2007 Philadelphia Marathon

Age: 35 
Time: 3:34:48 
Weight: 162 
Weekly Mileage: 32 (avg.)

Like the DE Marathon, I signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon just to stay in shape. But as you can see, my weight continued to creep up. I went out slow at the start and chatted with some friends in the first few miles. The light rain and the lack of a definitive time goal gave me little incentive to keep up a faster pace. I also had a hard time staying positive in the latter miles wondering why the heck I was subjecting myself to this?! 

My marathon lessons learned: It’s hard to stay focused without a real race goal. I also felt (again) the impacts of body weight on performance. Weight matters.

2008 Boston Marathon

Age: 35 
Time: 3:19:15 
Weight: 155 
Weekly Mileage: 37 (avg.)

I wanted to PR in Boston in the worst way. A sinus infection just a few weeks before the race seemed to dampen my hopes, but I went to the starting line feeling ready. I loved every minute of the Boston Experience and I’ll definitely be back there again (see my Boston Marathon race report for more.) The race temp was in the upper 50s to the lower 60s and sunny which added a few minutes. I trained for this race using Hal Higdon’s 18-week plan and I think it was worth it.

Marathon lessons learned: The only thing that I would have changed would be to extend my long runs by a few miles from 20 to 24, and add in some hillier workouts (those Newton hills are like a giant glycogen eraser!).

I hope that my experiences and the marathon lessons learned above help you in the pursuit of your distance running goals. It helped me…after seeing them on paper, I’m going on a diet before marathon #10 ;-).

Happy running!!

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