I’ve had the pleasure of running the Boston Marathon 19 times with a string now of 11 consecutive. My only misses since 1989 were for military duties and a foot surgery. In all these efforts, I had 5 under 2:30, 6 between 2:30 and 2:35; 3 between 2:35 and 2:40; 3 between 2:40-2:44; a 2:46 in the heat in 2012, and one DNF (my first one in 1989 with all the rookie mistakes ). My best learning experiences were when the men and women started together and I had the privilege of running alongside and witnessing the patient approach and incredibly efficient running of the top ladies.
The following is a recollection of past races and important tips for all racers running in Boston or other long-distance events. Much of this information in this essay had been previously posted, but it’s well worth repeating. You never know what Boston has in store for you.
In the 1998 Fatuma Roba, the Marathon Gold Medalist in Atlanta and 3-time Boston winner, scooted over the ground with an incredibly efficient motion. She hydroplaned along, hips extending, arms relaxed, and face always relaxed. She stayed out of trouble by tucking behind the lead pack of more aggressive ladies. I followed behind the train and we hit half way in about 1:13. Fatuma then opened her stride up in the second half moving away from all of us to run a 2:23. An amazing second half effort. I was pleased with a 2:27 that day and credit Fatuma as any thoughts to go faster sooner were mitigated by her patience.
A few years later in 2001, I witnessed multiple world-champion and Boston winner Catherine “the Great” Ndereba employ the same strategy. Her light springy stride and complete relaxation of effort were a contrast to other ladies in the pack who’s body language and breathing displayed they were putting out more energy than Katherine. As a group we hit the half in 1:14. Katherine kept relaxed down the long downhill at mile 16 then tightened the screws with a huge acceleration over the Newton hills, running a 50 minute last 10 miles for a 2:24. Katherine helped my day. By cueing off her pacing and relaxation I ran an even race and finished in 2:29.
The other runner who taught me to have fun out there was the legendary 3 time Boston winner Uta Pippig of Germany. In 1997 I ran with her until she dropped me at Cleveland Circle (mile 22). The crowds loved Uta and the noise escalated as she approached. She smiled the whole way. Maybe this was her cue to relax, feed off the crowd’s energy, and have fun in the moment. In marathoning you must be present in the moment; not thinking about how far you have to go, what you may feel like later, wondering if you are going to slow down, fearing the wall is coming. Uta ran a strong fourth place that day in 2:28 and I finished a few strides back in 2:29. She is an example of how our brains govern our effort….when we are positive it flows.
All of these ladies made sure to get their fluid and nutrition at all stops. The few extra seconds used here paid dividends down the road. They ran over the road not into the road, especially on the downhill. One could hardly hear them land as they did not employ hard heel striking technique. Their posture was tall and their arms always relaxed. But most vital was their efficient energy conservation and utilization strategy.
So how does this apply to you in your Boston Marathon, whether you are going to run 2:20 or 4 hours plus?
As you enter the week prior to the race here are a few strategies to help you set your plan. Running your best marathon is part art, science, guts, faith in what you can do, and a little luck. Running your best 10k is mostly about fitness. The best analogy I can think of is this: if you have trained your body properly with the right mix of aerobic level training and some up tempo stuff in recent weeks, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon. Many of you have driven in a Prius and watched the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the screen. You do not perceive these shifts. Your engine(muscles) runs on a mixture of gas (sugars) and electric (fats), and how much of each depends on the effort. This is why slow aerobic training is critical for marathon success, you build a massive electric (fat burning) engine.
You are starting the race with one gallon in the tank- assuming you have eaten a nice meal the night before with a light breakfast top off.
• If you are in all gas mode, your engine will run about 1.5 hours at a strong pace….then you are out of gas.
• If you are mostly electric you can run all day, but maybe not so quickly.
• If you are using the proper mix you will go quick and efficient for duration of your event, and you can even do some topping off along the way.
The glucose utilizing pathway is the gas. This is your stored liver/muscle glycogen and blood glucose (pasta meal and breakfast) – easy to access for ready energy. The fat utilizing pathway is the electric. In marathons you must be in hybrid the entire race. Hybrid is where your energy (ATP) is coming from both sources.
Many runners are in great “10k shape” (an all gas event), then run their marathon in the all gas mode- and usually crash. Glycogen sparing strategy need not apply in races of less than an hour as long as you had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras, top end anaerobic fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. Glucose gives 36 ATP per molecule with a limited supply, fat over 200 ATP per molecule and an unlimited supply. You must tap into the fat burning tank. Now you know how a bird can migrate 7000 miles without a gel pack. It’s all about the pace.
So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?
This is difficult because the sense at this level (Aerobic Threshold) is not as profound as Lactate Threshold (or Anaerobic Threshold). A slight increase from your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid to all gas without you realizing it, and the effects are felt miles later. Charging up hills early will tap your gas quickly. If you want to speed up early….DON’T. Relax and maintain comfortable effort, not always a specific speed. You should feel easy in the early stages, it is a marathon.
You must rehearse a bit in training. I focus on relaxation and belly breathing. If I’m breathing one cycle to 5 steps, then I’m hybrid. If I’m breathing faster I’m using mostly glucose as fuel. Belly breathe- allow lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation and pull your belly button back to your spine on exhalation. You will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you. Many are rapid breathing. They will suffer somewhere past half way. Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down- eyes, jaw, shoulders, allow your legs to relax and extend behind you. Your core is solid and your legs are a spring.
Find you own cue for this. If you use the Heart Rate Monitor in training strongly consider one during the event.
In a marathon, the last 3-4 miles you will be mostly gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in and heart rate rises. The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 steps per breath cycle- that is OK. Still stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form.
Land softly, especially on the early downhills. I run with a forefoot/midfoot landing harnessing elastic recoil. Focus on posture and hip extension. Use a slight forward lean from the ankles (think “face forward” and look ahead). I’m never sore after marathons now and feel I can keep doing them until I enter the retirement home. With good form it is “No pain…thank you”. Find a nice rhythm. Boston is filled with excitement and distractions. For you there are no distractions, just peace in the moment.
You get it now….the art of a marathon is to relax and be in the moment.
Save energy for the later stages of the race, this is where things can get tough. Remember, if you feel really good in the early stages and feel like you want to speed up….DON’T. It is a marathon and you should feel good in the early miles. Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”, this occurs when you see the Citgo sign (comes into view at Mile 23).
Your shoes matter too. Make strong consideration to not running in minimalist racers unless you have trained substantially in them and adapted your structure to a natural barefoot style gait. I advocate gradually adapting all of your training into more minimal and level shoes. If you relax your lower legs and load the springy tendons in your feet and Achilles, these shoes with no heel elevation put you in perfect position to allow natural elastic recoil of plantar fascia, Achilles, calf muscles, and hip flexors. New research and runner’s experience is now making the case for running with a more efficient stride and questions modern running footwear. The evolving world of modern sports medicine is going back to the future too and rediscovering what evolution has taught us.. You can view lots of running information at Dr. Mark’s Running School on http://www.tworiverstreads.com or right here on the Natural Running Center.
Now a few extra ways to get from start to finish quicker on the same gallon.
• If you can add a little gas along the way then you can go more into gas mode. This works a little at best. If running too fast you shunt all blood to working muscles and nothing digests, plus you are burning quickly through the glucose/gas. If you are in hybrid in the early going you can continually add fuel- the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace. A gel every 30 minutes is easy to digest and tops off the tank. Carry a few with you at the start. The weight is nothing compared to the benefit you will get. If you do the gels then you can drink water instead of the energy drinks which are often less predictable on the run. Boston has a Powergel station at Mile 17. Carry 3 at the start (one every 4 miles or so) and reload at mile 17.
• The early downhills out of Hopkinton are fun but if run too hard can drain your gas quickly and damage your quads….go smooth and easy down them. Allow gravity assist you down. Do not overstride and heel hit on the down hills- remember run over the ground not into the ground.
• Maintain effort on uphills in Newton. Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort increases. Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms. Relax and recover on the downs. The best downhill is at the top of Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. Save something and this will be like going down the first hill of the roller coaster!
• If it is windy get behind a group. This can save lots of physical and mental energy.
• If you are having a “bad patch” – try to refocus on relaxing, fuel a bit (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom), and have faith in your training and race plan. Another nice trick is when you hit mile 21 it is not 5 miles to go, it is 4 and change. Mile 22 is 3 and change to go. Just run to the next mile marker and count them down one by one. Smile and enjoy the crowds.
• Do not over drink water. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hypontremia.
• If it is going to be hot read the article I wrote after the steamy 2012 Boston Marathon which was published in the American Medical Athletic Association Journal
The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it. I’ve done over 90 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years. We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. I’ve learned a few things in 25 years on how to train and race efficiently and economically in the marathon, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up. I learn something new every time. So relax, taper up, and seize the day.
I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces Members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make the Boston Marathon a Patriot’s Day celebration. May the wind be at your back!
Good luck to all AMAA Boston runners, their friends, and families. See you for the post-race beer.