I spent years working toward my goal of running a Boston qualifying marathon time. Recently, it all came together for me at my 21st marathon, the Phoenix Marathon, where I ran a 3:28:56, over six minutes faster than the BQ application cutoff for my age. This race was obviously a PR for me, but I was shocked with how much I was able to improve over my three most recent races culminating at Phoenix.
First, I PR’d at Chicago with a 3:42. I credited a fast course, good weather, improved training (mainly Orangetheory and running hills at altitude), and a stronger mental game. (My previous PR of 3:44:46 was achieved way back in 2012; for my thoughts on what went on in the five intervening years, check out my slowdown story and my thoughts about getting back on the BQ wagon.) Two months later, I PR’d again at Kiawah with a 3:37, an unexpected five-minute improvement. Again, I credited a fast course, good weather, new mental strategies, and my altitude training. But I also ran negative splits for the first time in a long time, and I felt like that made a huge difference compared to Chicago. Then less than three months after that, after training back at sea level, I PR’d and BQ’d at Phoenix with 3:28:56, a whopping eight minute improvement over Kiawah, and a 13 minute improvement over Chicago in less than five months.
As someone who thought that Chicago might be as good as it gets in terms of race conditions, that 13-minute improvement was unfathomable — especially without significant changes to my training. (During the buildup, I frequently Googled “What is a reasonable marathon time improvement?” and “How long does it take to BQ?” Here’s my answer!) So what made the difference?
I think a few things contributed to my success at Phoenix: I lost a few pounds and cleaned up my eating before this race, I continued running on some tougher trails (although much less frequently than when I was in Colorado), I had been focusing on my form and the feedback I received at the UVA Speed Clinic, I was well-rested, I had been working on my mental strategies (including by reading Born to Run and Eat and Run and by listening to one million running podcasts), and this was a fast course with good weather. But far above these factors, I credit the fact that I finally got my pacing and nutrition right.
If 21 marathons sounds to you like a lot of practice before finally nailing pacing and nutrition, you’re absolutely correct. Something within me just always wanted to rebel, banking time and eschewing proper race nutrition. I often finished races with my stomach growling and legs heavy. I almost always had positive splits. And that BQ remained elusive.
At Kiawah, I decided to finally take that age-old advice about starting slow seriously. I had heard in a few podcasts that, physiologically, banking time simply doesn’t work. I trust science. I knew that I had started too fast at Chicago, and I didn’t want to repeat that mistake. Using a new pacing strategy with negative splits, Kiawah went really well.
For Phoenix, I decided to get a paceband to tell me what my splits should be at each mile to finish in 3:32, my goal time. I happened to find a Phoenix Marathon-specific paceband from Race Smart Pace Bands. There are a few other companies that offer similar products, or you can make your own paceband assuming even splits (8:05/mile for 3:32). What I liked about Race Smart was that the band was race-specific, meaning that it considers the elevation changes in the course and provides extra time for uphills and less time for downhill portions. It made my pacing strategy completely mindless. I had no math to do and no guesswork. I loved it, and I felt incredibly at ease with my pacing taken care of. I ended up finishing about three minutes faster than goal time, but I stuck to the paceband pretty religiously for the first half of the race. It was so nice to get to the halfway point and to be able to say, I can totally do that over again. I was careful not to veer too far off track with my splits until I was nearly done and knew I could crank out the final miles. Here are my half and 20-mile splits, showing slight negative splits for first vs. second half, and a good pace increase for the final 10k:
No one loves gels. We would all rather eat real food — donuts, candy corn, pancakes. We’d rather save the calories for post-race veggie burgers and brownie sundaes. And a gel during a training run? Not happening. These are natural thoughts. But it turns out, properly fueling a marathon makes a big difference in performance. Like the importance of good pacing, experienced and successful runners have preached the value of good nutrition for years. And yet I thought I was somehow above it all and could scrape by on a GU or two in the middle of race, just when I really needed one to go on. I rarely used gels during training, so there was certainly not going to be opportunities to practice a nutrition strategy or test different products during long runs.
But this BQ thing was no joke, and it was time to take fueling advice seriously. Starting with Chicago, I started taking in fuel earlier in my race and not waiting until I felt fatigued. I started with somewhat solid Clif blocks early in the race, then moved to yummy Huma gels and then to potent GUs. I used a similar strategy at Kiawah and felt good there too.
For Phoenix, I wanted to press a little further, trying to start the Clif blocks even earlier — in the first few miles of my race. Then I would move to my gels. So instead of taking in my fuel at miles 9, 14, and 19, for instance (this was an art not a science — I’ve never mapped out specific times to take gels), I might take fuel around miles 2 (Clif blocks), 8 (Huma lemon), 13 (GU salted caramel), and 17 (GU chocolate)… whenever I felt well enough to take in more calories and was near a water stop. I figured gels towards the end of the race were less important, since they inevitably take a little time to have effects, so I really front-loaded my race with calories.
This strategy worked great — I was never hungry, had no bonks, and didn’t get an upset stomach during or after the race. Plus, chomping those Clif blocks at the outset of my race helped slow me down in the exciting first few miles. I probably could have taken an extra gel toward the end of the race to keep an even supply of energy (I brought extra salted caramel and vanilla GUs that I didn’t use), but I was also taking Gatorade in the last few miles because of the heat. I decided to push through with just the Gatorade and luckily it worked out fine.
So, basically, lesson learned. Here I am, another conventional runner, telling you — as much as it pains me — to slow down at the start and to focus on your nutrition plan. Have you ever intentionally ignored the wisdom/advice of others in your running? How did it go? What sort of pacing and nutrition tips have you picked up?