Wise Running

Train smart, eat well, and enjoy the run.

How I Improved from 5:35 to 3:27 in the Marathon in 18 months

“You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.”   – Frank Shorter

Even though Frank was a world-class marathoner, I respectfully disagree.  I do remember my last marathon.  I remember all three of them.  If I didn’t remember, then I would not have learned from them.  If I had not learned from them, then I would not have returned for a second or third.  The name of my blog is Wise Running.  That is not a claim that everything I do is wise.  In fact, it is the opposite.  I am gradually becoming wise through the school of hard knocks.  The more mistakes I make while running, the wiser & faster I become

I am now in training for my fourth marathon.  I have my training plan and I am sticking to it as much as I can.  It is, to say the very least, vastly different from the training for my first marathon.  Looking back, I no longer consider that training.  What I did before my first marathon was haphazard and probably a little dangerous.

  • I was only running a few days a week, because my knees were always sore after a run.
  • I didn’t have a plan, I was just making it up as I went.
  • I only ran one 17 miler and one 20 mile run, everything else was 13 miles or less.
  • I took a total of three drinks of water during training runs in the entire “training” program.
  • There was only 1 run where I tried to consume any calories

Yes, that’s right.  I didn’t feel comfortable drinking while running, so I took a grand total of 3 drinks during the entire “training” program.  If you know anything about running long distances, you can probably guess what kind of experience I had in my first marathon.  Not good.

In April of 2010, I glided through the first half of the Knoxville Marathon in just over 2 hours and felt strong.  By mile mile 16, I knew I didn’t feel right.  By mile 18, I started cramping a little.  By mile marker 19, every muscle in my body was taking turns cramping.  I walked the last 7.2 miles.  It began to rain hard.  By the time I crossed the first bridge over the river, it was raining sideways because of the huge cross-breeze.  I was wet, cold, shivering, and generally miserable.  Thank God for nice people!  A volunteer under the bridge in the 20th mile gave me poncho.  It kept me warm enough to stave off the medics and gradually walk to the finish.  It was a humbling experience watching all of the pacers pass me one by one.  I refused to quit.  I completed my first marathon in 5 hours and 35 minutes.  I was in pain & suffering for the next week.

What did I learn from marathon number 1?  Plenty!

  • You had better have a training plan or you will suffer!
  • You had better have calories, electrolytes, and drinks or you will suffer!
  • I am not a quitter. :)

That is the beginning of the story.  What happened in the next 18 months? 

The first thing that I always do after a bad run is to plan my return.  You can’t let a course beat you.  The second thing I did was to start reading.  I had half-heartedly looked at training plans before, but now I was seriously shopping for one.  I read up on hydration, energy gels, shoes, & everything else I could find.

I did not start the marathon training right away.   In fact, I started where I should have started the first time.  I began to train for shorter distances first.  A couple of months later, I ran the Expo 5K in 21:55, a 7:03 mile pace & almost a full minute faster than my previous 5K time.  Next I set my sites on improving my half-marathon time.  I had managed to survive a 1:59:27 at the Oak Ridge half the previous year.  I began to build a mileage base running 4 days a week fairly consistently, which was not easy because my knees were still ailing.  In October of 2010, I ran the Secret City Half Marathon in 1:48:59.

The things I was doing differently than before:

  • I gradually built up my weekly mileage.
  • I did a speed workout at the track about once a week, running 400m or 800m repeats.
  • On my runs over 10 miles, I was experimenting with sports drinks and energy gels.

One more critical thing happened in late December of 2010.  I purchased a pair of Vibram Fivefingers KSOs.  These are extreme minimalist shoes.  They are not for everyone, so don’t take this as a suggestion.  The KSOs were important for me because they have no cushioning.  The lack of cushioning caused me to alter my running form to a much better and safer form.  The result was happy knees!  When I run in Vibrams or other shoes with no cushioning, my knees do not get any more sore than any other part of my body.  What a blessing!

Training for the 2011 Knoxville Marathon

Despite my best intentions of implementing the full Hal Higdon marathon training schedule, I found myself starting late.  I did, however, accomplish most of his Advanced 1 training schedule.  I started on the Advanced 1 rather than intermediate plans because of the mileage base that I had built.  I found that I could adjust this particular schedule just a bit and it pushed me just a little harder.  Just right.

The things I was doing differently than before:

  • I was following an expert’s marathon training plan that challenged me just enough.
  • I focused my track work on 800 meter repeats exclusively, running every 800 at 3:30.
  • I was taking electrolyte capsules to supplement the sports drinks & energy gels.
  • I ran three 20 mile runs in preparation for the marathon.

1 Year After My First Marathon

I returned to the scene of the crime a year later.  I was not going to allow a course to defeat me and get away with it.  I was here for revenge.  I had specialized training, energy gel, a fuel belt with my own Gatorade, electrolyte tablets, and cool shoes.  Yes, folks, I was back to kick some butt!

Did it all go as planned?  Of course not.  I had rumblings in my tummy before I had reached mile marker 5.  Thankfully, the Knoxville Track Club and the race director know what runners need.  There were plenty of porta-potties along the route.  I made prolonged visits to these facilities no less than four times.  That was glitch number one.  Glitch number two came when I dropped the electrolyte capsules somewhere in the first 6 miles.  Thankfully, I had taken several before the start so I wasn’t completely out of luck.

Despite these issues, I still finished the first half of the marathon at around 1:48.  The first part of the course has more hills than the second half, so I knew that I could cruise to a decent time even if I got tired and crampy.  This time the second half of the marathon did go much better.  I took the time to drink more, but kept a respectable pace.  I felt my body running low on fuel, but I had energy gel.  I felt sort of a pre-cramp feeling, so I chose to slow down my pace and try to relax my muscles.  I did gradually slow down more than I wanted to, but I managed to complete the course in 3:55:59 - about an hour and 40 minutes faster than in 2010.

I still felt as if I had been run over by a truck and my feet had a lot of blisters, but I had taken that course to school!  It had beaten me in 2010 and I beat it in 2011.

The Next 6 Months

It only took a couple of days to recuperate from the extreme soreness.  In that time, I was already beginning to plan my next race.  I knew that I would return to run the Knoxville Marathon in 2012, but I wanted to run a marathon before that.  I eventually found the 7 Bridges Marathon scheduled for mid-October of 2011.  It was just a short drive south to Chattanooga and the course looked to be flatter than Knoxville.  I did not wait for the 18 week marathon training schedule to kick in.  After resting and some gentle, short runs for the first two weeks, I began the process of cranking up my mileage and speed work.

  • IMPORTANT:  At this time, I learned that the most important way to handle running in extreme heat is to be running long runs as the heat increases from spring to summer.

In other words, in addition to precautions of extra water and electrolytes, you also have to gradually get your body used to running in increasingly hot temperatures.  If you begin to increase your mileage a lot when it is already hot, you may suffer a heat stroke!!!

Thankfully, that did fit my plan.  The official training plan that I used to prepare for the 7 Bridges Marathon was Hal Higdon’s Advanced 2 plan.  It represented another increase in mileage and intensity.  By this time, I had shifted to running in Vibram Fivefingers Bikila LS shoes.  I ran six days a week and felt pretty good.

I followed Higdon’s advice and used my marathon training to get some faster times in shorter races.  I ran the 2011 Expo 10K in May in 43:09 [6:56 mile pace] and the Fireball 5K in July in 20:41 [6:39 pace].

The things I was doing differently than before:

  • I ran 6 days per week & rested every Friday regardless of how good I felt.
  • I was following a new marathon training plan that challenged me just enough.
  • I was now doing my 800 meter repeats at 3:00, 30 seconds faster than before
  • I continued testing out new sports drinks & energy gels.
  • I ran more 20 mile runs in preparation for the marathon and even went 22.5 once.

18 Months After the First Marathon

I was beginning to fantasize about qualifying for Boston.  At my age, it would have taken a time of 3:25.  That would have been 30 minutes and 59 seconds faster than my marathon just 6 months prior.  At this level, it is not considered realistic or even smart to try to improve that much in such a short time.  On the other hand, I knew that I was getting faster and smarter.  I thought I had an outside chance if everything came together just right and the wind was at my back the whole way.

Rather than expect a miracle, however, I decided to say that 3:25 was my fantasy goal but that I would be happy to finish anywhere in the 3:30s. After all, 3:35 would be a big improvement over 3:55.  For the pace of my training, this seemed reasonable.

At the start line, I was nervous!  I couldn’t decide between my two strategy choices.  Should I run at an 8 minute pace and then speed up on the back half to see what I could do?  Should I start out a little faster than “Boston pace” and hope to get close to that mark?  When the starting gun went off, I was thinking plan B.  I had to take a shot at Boston.  If I failed, I would still finish with a good time.

That is exactly what happened.  I finished the first half at a 7:24 pace that felt comfortable.  It did not feel like pushing it.  I drank and ate more than I had ever attempted in previous marathons in the effort to avoid the dehydration and nutrition issues that had slowed me down.  I was gradually slowing down throughout the second half, but with three miles to go, I could still run the last miles at a 9 minute pace and qualify for Boston.  Unfortunately, that is when I really started to slow down.  Despite my best training and my best drinking strategy, I was still dehydrated.

When I crossed bridge number 7 I had no gas left and that is when the cramps set in.  I gave up Boston and slowed down.  I was disappointed, but I knew that I had made a tremendous improvement and run the right race.  Looking back, the only change I would have made would be to drink 5-8 more cups of Powerade along the way.  It is just an educated guess, but I believe I would have finished 5 to 10 minutes faster if I had slowed down to drink.

As it was, I dragged myself across the finish line in a time of 3:27:27.  I had improved my time by a little less than half an hour.  Nice!

And From There?

As of 4/10/2013, I have managed to get marathon PR down to 3:13:41.  I was ill throughout much of 2012, so this is still good progress.   If all goes well, I would like to finish the next marathon in less than 3:00.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

_____________

Maybe you knew all of these lessons already, but they were new to me.  If you have learned just one new idea from reading this, then I will be happy.  We runners have to stick together.  Its more fun and safe that way.

You can find me on the web:

Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wise-Running/223617527674175

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/#!/Wise_Running  @Wise_Running

Daily Mile:  http://www.dailymile.com/people/PMarkT

“Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!”  — P. Mark Taylor

_____________

Check out these books by P. Mark Taylor for more advice on running:

 

The Gift of Running: A Book for Runners & Future Runners  Wise Running Book COVER mockup

&

Wise Running: Thoughts on Running and Life

5 responses to “How I Improved from 5:35 to 3:27 in the Marathon in 18 months

  1. Bari January 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Many awesome lessons to be learned here! I’m coming down to run the Knoxville Half this year while one of my good friends runs the full – so cool that you’ll be there too!

  2. Lisa @ RunWiki January 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I have experienced some of these same things in marathons. Like every difficult circumstance in our lives, we can either ignore the lessons presented to us or we can learn from them and grow. Thank you for reminding and teaching us that learning is the ultimately the way to strength, power and a new PR. Look forward to following your training in 2012.

  3. Dave (@MVNUSID) January 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Great post! Sounds like you and I have a very similar running history minus the minimalist running shoes. :) I too trained for my first marathon with no plan and no hydration or fuel practice and ended up walking the final 6 miles to still finish with a 3:52. I’m now a little less than 3 months out from my second marathon attempt and I’m following Higdon’s Advanced 1 plan and taking the mandatory day off on Friday’s (except for this week when the weather didn’t cooperate and I flip-flopped Thursday and Friday). Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. Terzah January 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Hi! Similar stories here. My first marathon (15 years ago!) was finished in 5:00:26 (those 26 seconds still bug me). I trained properly for my third 8 years later (and my second was a super-long training run for that) and ran it in 4:13. But in none of those races did I eat anything or drink anything other than water.

    Now I too have Boston in my sights. I have to run a 3:44:59 or better to do that. Marathon #4 (last September) was 3:59:11 (with a major bonk after mile 18). Marathon #5 (two weeks ago in Houston) was a 3:53:28. Fueling in race #5 finally felt under control. I feel like nine minutes is still a lot shave off. This spring I am taking a break from marathons to focus on speed and shorter distances. In the fall, I hope to finally reach my goal.

    I really appreciate your advice!

  5. Pete January 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Great write up and I am on the same journey from 5:57 land. Currently at 4:39 and working my way down. What really hit me here is the fueling/hydration I need to work on.

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