By Calvin W.
Marathons are really long races. Long enough that it seems like a good strategy to have a good strategy for running them. And that’s what I’ve tried to do from my very first marathon…have a strategy…even if it hasn’t always been good.
My first marathon was in 2013, Garden Spot Village Marathon, Lancaster County, PA. Back then, fueled by conviction from a JRC Growlers running buddy—Big Dave—that basically anyone can run a sub-4:00 marathon unless they’re walking, I went out at the pace I felt sure I could sustain…and steadily got slower and slower aaaand slower. I finished in 4:24:22. He’s still my running buddy. And he still runs way faster than me.
It took me 2 more races to drop below the 4-hour mark for the first time in 2014. It took me another 2 years running 1-3 races a year to run sub-4:00 consistently.
An element of my success was mastering negative splits in training.
The inspiration began when I started hearing from other runners around me that the key to really good racing was negative splitting--running the second half of a race faster than the first half. The inspiration concretized when I started paying attention to elite athletes.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno was the rage. Listening to the commentators describing his races, I heard them talk about how athletes like him deliberately keep their pace low enough to conserve energy, but fast enough to remain competitive with the front of the field. And all you had to do was watch their relaxed effort at the beginning of every event compared to their all-out effort at the end to know they consistently negative split.
Since then I’ve gotten good at it. I warm up and run easy during the 1st quarter of every run. Then I start picking up the pace with each successive quarter until I finish. When I look at my personal stats for every race I’ve done since I started training with negative splits, I can see the same tendency—well, not exactly the same, but the first and last quarters are mighty consistent, and the halves are largely unwavering. I’m usually finishing my final quarter around 45 seconds faster than my first.
My marathon PR was at Steamtown 2016 in Scranton, PA. I began the race pacing the entire first half 9.0 and finished the last mile doing 8.0. (N.b. I calculate pace in decimal minutes rather than minutes-seconds. I’m weird that way.) In fact, I can consistently finish my final mile pacing a full minute faster than my first quarter.
Quiet Man Tom (Shawmont Running Club) recently said to me, I don’t understand why you don’t have faster marathon times when you can finish so fast. He’s not the only person to think something like that. Here’s what none other than Hal Higdon has to say: “Nobody runs 1 to 2 minutes per mile faster in the last few miles unless they have run the earlier miles way too slow. You need to learn how to pace yourself better” (Higdon). Now, who am I to contradict Hal Higdon?
Well I’d like to contradict Hal Higdon. Maybe no one does…unless they train that way.
Garden Spot Village Marathon is a hilly race and prides itself at being so. It also holds a special place in my heart because it was my first marathon. I didn’t quite know how hilly, but given that it was a local, spring race, I don’t think it would have mattered much. I was going to do it no matter what. Because of its sentimental value to me, it remains the only race that I’ve ever run more than twice--once a year for every year I’ve run competitively--5 times total.
GSV is so hilly I have to be extra careful of my starting pace. In 2013, my first year, here was my pacing by quarters: 8.5, 8.9, 10.2, 12.8; 10.1 avg, 4:24:22. In 2014, I managed to slow down my start: 9.3, 9.0, 9.5, 9.3; 9.2 avg, 4:01:38. (The ups and downs are a reflection of the hilliness of the course.) Here’s 2015 (when I truly negative split the halves): 9.7, 9.2, 8.9, 9.3; 9.3 avg, 4:03:13. And 2016: 8.8, 8.8, 9.8, 12.7; 10.0 avg, 4:20:51. And, finally, 2017: 9.1, 8.7, 8.9, 9.3; 9.0 avg, 3:55:08.
If you’re paying attention amid all the numbers, you’ve probably noticed that I wasn’t really accurate when I said I’m consistently racing with negative splits. I did say that GSV Marathon is hilly. But don’t miss the point: I’ve gotten pretty good at negative splitting everywhere else. Here’s my PR marathon (2016 Steamtown)--9.0, 9.0, 8.8, 8.3 (8.8 avg, 3:49:51)--and my penultimate PR (2017 Rehoboth Beach Marathon)--9.1, 8.8, 8.8, 8.5 (8.8 avg, 3:50:27). Those trends are reflected in my training and half marathons.
Here’s where I contradict Hal Higdon. With GSV as evidence, when I go out even 0.3 minutes faster--the difference between my 2016 and 2017 paces, about 20 seconds per mile--I don’t finish as well and I’m much farther from negative splitting.
So here’s my goal for 2018 on April 14: 9.2, 8.9, 8.6, 8.3 (8.8 avg, 3:49:50). I plan to marathon-PR and I actually plan to do it by more than 1 second even though that’s about 5 minutes faster than my 2017 time.
Here are some other justifications for the strategy and my goals: My last training cycles have gotten faster and faster so I can certainly improve any race time over last year. The justification for the starting pace: GSV Marathon is just bad for going out too fast. The justification for the progression: I need not to increase my pace too much to conserve energy for the hillier 2nd half when I’m going to be more fatigued. And the justification for the finishing pace: I can finish pacing as fast as 8.0 based on other marathons and can consistently finish the last mile a minute faster than I started.
So that’s the strategy. Let’s see how the execution goes.
Higdon, Hal. “Choosing a Marathon Pacing Strategy.” TrainingPeaks, 13 Oct. 2015, https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/choosing-a-marathon-pacing-strategy/.
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