Advice from My Second Time Around

How to Run a Faster Marathon


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There’s an odd pride in knowing you don’t follow your own advice. You’re like a renegade from your own wisdom. You’re independent from all rules, even your own. That was me in 2013: a dumb, stubborn first-time marathoner stepping up to the start line of the Long Beach Marathon thinking I’d meet all my marathon dreams (running sub-seven-minute miles, qualifying for Boston) in one shot. Inside, I knew better. It wouldn’t happen that way. But why would I listen to myself? I fired off the line like Meb Keflezighi was at my heels. Then, at mile 14, I slowed. Mile 18, I hit the wall, and eight miles later, I limped across the line. Marathon #1: fail.

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Sequels tend to suck (Caddyshack II), and when they involve 26.2 miles of pavement, the suck-potential shoots up exponentially. This year, at Marathon #2, I stepped up to the start line of the San Francisco Marathon with expectations low. I planned for the worst. I ran slow. And then, after the first half went well, I ran a little faster. I felt strong. At mile 15, I passed my old self. That person from last year — the guy guzzling Nuun and crushing GU’s to power through the next mile — I breezed past him cooking with steam. He was in pain; I was in a groove. As I crossed the finish line (and it still feels weird to say) I actually found I enjoyed the race. And I finished faster — 12 minutes and 6 seconds faster.

So, if I could, I’d like to give some advice to my former, first-marathon self. Would I have listened? Maybe not. But I’ll take a stab and guess that you’re smarter than me, and maybe you can learn from one man’s mistakes. Here’s my wisdom from a second round of 26.2.

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1
Stay in Your League. During that first race, I’d come off a half marathon at 6:47 pace (1:28:59 time), and I anticipated keeping that clip for the marathon. First thing I learned: double the distance isn’t double the fun. The second time around I set realistic expectations: I wanted to finish somewhere respectable, about 7:45 minutes per mile, and I actually, triumphantly, did. Could I have gone faster? Maybe — but I’ll let the Boston qualifying times come after a few more races under my belt. The new me’s okay with that.

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2
Negative Splits are Real. First race, I set out of the blocks like a springbok. Bad news is, the Serengeti of marathoning is a long-haul type of place, and strength goes to the stable, not the immediately swift. That first race, I finished Q1 at a 6:55 pace; but at the halfway point, my body’s fuel supplies began to dwindle. I started to slow, and by the time I reached Q4, I nursed a 9:46 and spent the end of the race watching runners pass. Second race, I started slow. I cruised around 8:00 minutes per mile for the first half, then picked up the pace at mile 13. I averaged a 7:30 pace in the next 13, and made my last three miles my fastest. That felt right; per my goal pace, I ran 15 seconds slower on the first half, 15 seconds faster in the second half, then finished strong.

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3
Slow Means Slow. Long Slow Distance runs are good on a slow trickle; but on my first round, I sped through them, timing myself to see if I could keep pace. I was fanatical about pace. Addicted. And I was wrong. The second time round, I took slow seriously, and didn’t worry about the times I posted. The speed training’s for the Fartleks and shorter mid-week runs. On the weekend, I cruised, got my feet under me, and didn’t overexert my legs on the long runs.

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4
Don’t Sweat your Training Plan. Training plans are more like guidelines than rules; what really calls the shots is the body. As a first timer, my training plan trumped everything else, but second time around, I felt fine shaving off a few miles on a run here, missing a day there. What helped most was not stressing that a missed day meant a botched race, and I allowed myself a recovery day if I felt my legs needed it. I got in tune with my internal trainer, and cultivated a healthy fear of over-training (which is as helpful as a fear of under-training).

No-Booze-Gear-Patrol

5
Stay Healthy (and Stop Drinking). Two weeks prior to the first marathon, a late party night turned into a morning sore throat. The feeling lingered, and on race day, while I felt healthy, I wasn’t 100 percent. For a swift marathon, you need your full self. This time around, two weeks prior to race day, I prioritized two things: sleep and health. I didn’t do a complete diet shift, but I cut out all alcohol and slept at least eight hours a night. The dry R&R helps, and so do the low expectations, a slower pace, and less training. All in all, sounds like a walk in the park, right? Not quite; I still hit the 45-mile weeks hard, but I spent less time stressing and more time training smart. It gives you a fighting chance in your next (or first) race; you might leave the limping for those who aren’t in the know.

AND NOW, A FEW RULES

1. First timer? Old vet? There’s always room for another, so get back out there, champ; there’s pavement to pound.

2. Run with someone faster than you; speed needs good company.

3. Never borrow (or lend) a BodyGlide stick.

4. Long runs on the treadmill can be used as an interrogation technique. Don’t torture your own soul.

5. If so far you’ve missed out on heated debates over minimalist vs. stability vs. maximalist shoes, you can still read up.

6. Know your opponent. If you aren’t close enough to pre-run the course, drive it the day before (twice).

7. Drink water. Every time. And have an eating plan. You’re doing this running thing for like three hours, you know?

8. Leave the headphones at home. Find your inner race zen.

9. Be courteous on the course. Those fans casually sipping their cappuccinos got up early to quietly watch you suffer.

10. Finished? Hey, that’s good stamina — now go ahead and flaunt that display of endurance to the ladies.