Monthly Archives: May 2010

How I shaved 18:42 off my marathon time in one year

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…


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A history in marathons

Before I post about how I was able to improve my running enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I thought it would be fun and helpful to give you a history of the previous marathons I have run, from the beginning.

I have been running marathons since 2003. My first one remains one of the most memorable. I raised $4200 for Team in Training, traveled to Alaska, and completed the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in 4:07:47. Ever since that first race I was hooked. I knew that someday I would break 4 hours, and that was my ultimate goal. My next 3 marathons were all Chicago, in 2003 (4:15:18), 2004 (4:27:10), and 2005 (4:17:00). I really wasn’t getting any closer to the 4 hour mark, in fact I couldn’t even beat the time from my first marathon. I decided it was time to do something different in training. Up until this point, I had never really done speedwork, and I’m sure all of my running was probably done at the same steady (slow) pace.

The next marathon I signed up for was the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee in 2006. I decided this was the year I would break 4 hours. I started using a 3-run-per-week training plan that included one interval run, one tempo run, and one long run per week. I also cross trained twice a week, usually biking. That October I ran a 3:57:03 at Lakefront. I was so happy to have finally accomplished my goal. I ran Chicago again three weeks later and finished in 4:27:20, thus running my fastest and slowest marathon to date in the same month. I considered giving up marathons at this point because I honestly didn’t think any other goals were possible. Yes, maybe I could beat my time, but Boston qualifying or even a 3:50 was so far out of reach I didn’t even consider the possibility.

In 2007 I did not run a marathon. I can’t remember the reasoning, other than I had a friend’s wedding on the date of Chicago, and I just didn’t sign up for anything else. I still ran throughout the year, but nothing longer than probably 6 or 7 miles. I didn’t think I would miss the marathon, but by the end of 2007 I was hungry. I decided that I would run Chicago again in 2008. I also got into triathlon around this time and signed up for my first half-ironman. Running in 2008 was memorable because I ended up training my friend Cammie for her first marathon. We did our long runs together amidst hours and hours of good conversation. I didn’t have any goal for the race other than to run for fun. I finished in 4:10:58, though deep down I knew I had the fitness to run a lot faster than that. Without a goal pushing me it just didn’t happen. I went home feeling a little bit unsatisfied.

In 2009 I heard about the inaugural WI Marathon in May, and decided I would carry over my fitness throughout the winter and go for a PR in the spring. I followed the same 3-run training plan, and I was feeling so good about where I was at that I made my goal for the race not only to PR, but to break 3:50. Though I was on pace for most of the race, my stomach got the best of me and I had a horrible finish. I still PR’d with a 3:56:31, but it was a huge disappointment.

Fall of 2009 was Ironman WI. Though I did not do another fall marathon, I ended the year in the best shape of my life and decided to go for a major PR at the WI Marathon in 2010. As I started training my goal was to break 3:50, but my running was going so well that thoughts of Boston started to creep into my head. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I started to wonder if the impossible had become a possibility. My long runs were on pace and I was feeling great. I knew that if everything came together on May 1st I would be golden. Well things obviously came together and I was able to finish in 3:37:49, good for Boston qualifying and also a huge 18:42 PR. I am still amazed with how far I have come in one year, and next I will try to go into specific detail on how I was able to get faster.

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WI Marathon Race Recap

Warning: This race recap is ridiculously long, sorry.

I always manage to completely stress myself out in the days leading up to a big race. With memories of last year in my mind, I was determined not to get sick, so I started in with the precautionary Airborne tablets on Wednesday. I was completely convinced on Thursday that I was coming down with something. I had a headache and what I swore was the beginning of a sore throat. I was so upset about it that I started dreading the race. This snowballed for the rest of the day, and I was having thoughts like what was I thinking trying to qualify for Boston? It’s too hard, I’ll never make it. I can’t wait until this is all over, etc, etc. I went to bed at 9:30 on Thursday night determined to knock out my non-existent impending illness.

I ended up getting 9 hours of pretty good sleep and woke up Friday morning in a completely different state of mind. I was excited about the race again, though I still couldn’t wait until it was over. I work half-days on Fridays, which worked out well. After work I stopped over at Performance Running Outfitters in Brookfield to pick up my new team jersey. I joined their racing team (sweet!), so the jersey is a really cool perk (see photo below). After that I headed over to REI to look for some new running shorts and pick up some gels. I was originally planning to wear capris for the race, but when I saw that it was going to be in the mid to upper 70’s, I knew shorts were the way to go. I haven’t bought any new running shorts in several years, and the only ones I had that are confortable were either neon green or white with neon green, neither of which would match with my sweet new jersey. I ended up getting these:

Let me tell you that they are the most awesomely comfortable running shorts I have ever owned, and are worth the steep price tag of $38.

After my little shopping trip I headed home for some afternoon relaxation. Unfortunately, I did have a bit of work to finish up at home as well, but I got that done pretty quickly. I got all of my stuff organized for the race, and then it was time for an early dinner. I had a small salad topped with a veggie burger, half of a sweet potato with cottage cheese, and some crackers. I know it sounds random, but it’s the sort of thing I have been eating before all of my long runs, so I knew it would sit well. A little bit later I also had a pumpkin chocolate chip muffin with dark chocolate peanut butter for dessert. Holy yum.

I got into bed a little before 9pm and put on a movie (movies usually have the effect of putting me to sleep unfortunately). Within 20 minutes I was really tired so I turned off the TV and was out. I woke up a few times during the night, but not as much as usual before a race. I woke up at one point wondering how many minutes before my alarm would go off at 4am, and when I looked at the clock it was 3:59. Don’t you just love that?

I got up right away and immediately made a cup of coffee. I had my usual bagel with peanut butter and honey, and then another cup of coffee for good measure. I got dressed and gathered all of my stuff, and before I knew it my friend James was picking me up at 5am. We made the drive down to Kenosha, stopping at a gas station along the way to use the bathroom. We luckily found a free parking lot about three blocks from the start/finish area. I put on my running shoes, then snacked on a banana and 2 big dates (they are nature’s miracle energy food if you ask me). We jogged down to the starting area, and of course by now I had to pee again, so to the port-a-potty line we went. I should mention here that there was a woman announcing over a microphone all sorts of information about the race. She said that after the race there would be brats for the runners or pancakes. This was music to my ears because I love me some pancakes, and brats are really just not my thing. We made out way to the starting line around 6:45 and waited for the start. My plan was to start out holding steady at an 8:15 pace, banking about 7 seconds per mile (overall goal pace was 8:23).

The race started and we were off. The first 6 miles were fast. 7:57, 7:47, 8:02, 8:07, 8:09, 8:10. There was a lot of energy because the half-marathoners were also on the same course. After the first turnaround I started to see some people I knew and waved to them. I took a Hammer gel around mile 6, after which my stomach felt a little weird. All I could do was hope it would hold out, which thankfully it did. Miles 7-12 stayed really consistent. I knew the pace was fast, but I felt great and decided to just hold steady and bank as much time as possible, knowing that I would need it later in the race. 8:05, 8:10, 8:10, 8:04, 8:05, 8:02. Somewhere around here the half-marathoners split off towards the finish line, and the marathoners kept going for the southern portion of the course.

I felt like I was pushing it a little, but I still felt comfortable. I think I took another Hammer gel around the halfway point. The southern portion of the course takes runners all the way to the Illinois border and back. We were headed into the wind here, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. It was also starting to get pretty hot, but I actually don’t mind the heat too much. James and I just kept pushing forward at a consistent pace. I was starting to get tired, but I knew that after the final turnaround we would have the wind at our backs for the rest of the race. Miles 13-18 were 8:17, 8:19, 8:00, 8:14, 8:15, 8:14. By now we had banked over 3 minutes, and I knew I was in good shape for a 3:40 finish. We reached the final turnaround at mile 18.5 or so, and the wind was at our backs. Why is it that when you run into the wind you can really feel it slowing you down, but then when you turn around and have it at your back it feels like there is no wind at all?

Miles 19 and 20 stayed consistent at 8:19 and 8:16, and then things started to slow down. Somewhere in here I took another Hammer gel. By the time I hit mile 21 I was hurting. I was just tired all over, and I knew the last 5 miles were going to be killer. To me miles 21-24 are always the worst. I was in so much pain, and at the same time so close but so far away. 8:25, 8:37, 8:36, 8:28. Somewhere around mile 23-24, my calves started to cramp up. They were really twinging, but luckily it never progressed to a full-blown seizing and I was able to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. With two miles to go I knew I just had to hang on and I would be headed to Boston. I was hurting so so badly and all I wanted to do was stop. I just kept telling myself to push a little longer. This is it, I didn’t work my ass off for four months to come here and lose it in the last two miles. Mile 25 was 8:42. With 1.2 miles to go, I tried to pick it up a little, but I had nothing left. Mile 26 was 8:37. With about 400 meters to go and the finish line in sight, James looked at me and asked if my endorphins were kicking in for the finish. I couldn’t even respond out loud that no, they were not. I crossed the finish line with an official time of 3:37:49, and my Garmin had the course measured at 26.45 miles. There were quite a few turns, so that’s not really surprising.

Boston, here I come!

I collected my cheezy finisher’s medal, and DailyMile friend Krista came over and congratulated me (thanks Krista!). I seriously could barely walk over to the water table. I grabbed two bottles of water and a banana and collapsed on the grass. I thanked James for running with me, because seriously, I don’t think I could have pulled that off by myself. He is super-speedy (already qualified for Boston with a smokin’ 3:13:something in Phoenix earlier this year), and I was very grateful to have him pacing me.

After sitting for a while on the grass, I wanted my pancakes, so we headed over to the food tent. That is when I saw a sign that said “runners with food tickets, brats only.” WTF? You are telling me that I just ran a marathon and I can have a free brat, but I have to pay $5 for pancakes?? I was pissed. That’s when James offered to trade me $5 for my food ticket, so I got my pancakes and he got another brat and beer.

After we ate, it was time to make the trek back to the car. Only problem was, I quite literally could not walk. It was as if my hip flexors had been completely deactivated, and I could not lift my legs whatsoever. It was weird, and something that has never happened to me before. I tried walking backwards and sideways, but nothing was helping. I didn’t know how I was going to make it three blocks. I was also shivering, which was making things worse because my muscles were just locking up. James finally had to walk ahead and get the car while I kept inching my way pathetically down the sidewalk.

I didn’t remember to take a finishing picture until we got back to Milwaukee, so here I am outside of my condo:

I pretty much just relaxed and ate for the rest of the day. I was so incredibly dehydrated I probably drank 2 gallons of water, and I was just constantly thirsty. Steve and I went over to James’ place to grill out for dinner. It was really nice out so we ate outside, then indulged in chocolate angel food cake with strawberries and ice cream for dessert. We also had quite a bit of wine, and by the time we got home around midnight I was toast. I crashed hard and this morning I slept in until 9:45! That is a huge feat for me, as I am usually up by 6:30-7:00 even on the weekends. My legs are quite sore today, and stairs are presenting a bit of a problem. I still managed the walk down the street to Trocadero for some delicious brunch, and the rest of the day has been spent relaxing. This week will be a bit of recovery, and then I am going to ramp up into tri training. I think my bike is feeling a little neglected, so hopefully the weather stays nice and I can start racking up some serious mileage.

What a great start to racing season!


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Boston bound!

I did it! I qualified for the Boston Marathon today with a time of 3:37:52 (unofficial). The beginning was great, the middle was great, and everything after mile 21 was pure torture. I am home, showered, and in the process of feeding. Back tomorrow with a full report!

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