Written by: Alec Blenis.
My Slowest Marathon
This is my first race report in a really long time. The last time I actually trained for an event was the 2016 Georgia Death Race, a 68 mile run through the North Georgia Mountains. It was the most dedicated I had ever been with my training and the lifetime peak of my fitness. I was averaging 60 miles per week for ~12 weeks (which is a lot considering I usually average 15mpw) and I had never been more excited to race. I had a strong showing, holding 7th place in an elite field until I suffered a fairly severe ankle sprain about 1/3rd through the event. I hobbled to the next aid station and had to drop. It was the first time I had ever cried from disappointment, as I wanted nothing more than to keep running, but the pain was beyond anything I could push through for another 40 miles. Despite the enormous setback, I was ready to build on my base fitness and come back stronger the next year.
That didn’t happen. 2016 and 2017 have been filled with tons of life changes that put training on the back burner. I graduated from college. I moved to Hawaii. I got married. The time I spend coaching doubled. I moved to Minneapolis. I finally got settled in and got dedicated to training again, but not in the way I had before. My wife decided she wanted to train for a figure show, so instead of devoting my time to becoming a runner again, I decided to focus on strength training with her. And the results have been great! I’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle since moving to Minneapolis from Hawaii earlier this year and I’ve never been stronger. But I haven’t done anything to become a runner again. I started running again for a few weeks for 25k trail run over the Summer and for Tough Mudder X, but I only got a few quality weeks in and then went back to mostly lifting with maybe an hour of running per week.
I was actually really content with my training. The new focus on lifting was fun and I was enjoying doing something different. Then I remembered that I signed up for the New York City Marathon. I still have no idea why I signed up for it back in March. I thought I would be doing a lot of road running when we moved to Minneapolis, so it seemed like something that would make me want to start running again, but after forking over a thousand dollars on the race entry and an Airbnb, I didn’t think about it again until September.
In September, reality sunk in and I realized I would be running a marathon in about 9 weeks. If I was ever going to start training, it should be now. I didn’t realize how much my running fitness had declined until I went out for my first hard run in a while. Below I describe the key workouts I did in the 2 months leading up to the NYC Marathon. Click on the hyperlinks below for Strava data for each workout.
9 weeks out: 4 miles @ 6:20. I knew that the last time I ran a marathon, my race pace had been 6:30/mile, so naturally it seemed reasonable that I should run a 6:20 pace this time. Never mind the fact that the last time I ran a marathon I was training and racing consistently, putting in twice as much endurance volume, and 20 pounds lighter. Never mind the fact that NYC is a tougher course than Boston – all that mattered to me as that I would set a PR, so my marathon pace was 6:20, even if I was in no shape to honestly believe this was possible. On this run, I figured I would go run marathon pace around the lake a few times and see how it felt. I was extremely humbled and disappointed to find that I could barely sustain this pace for one loop. Just 30 minutes of running completely wrecked my pride and made me feel like signing for the NYC Marathon was a terrible idea indeed. But it also challenged and inspired me. If I actually put a plan together, could I turn things around and magically hold my 4 mile race pace for 26.2 miles, without giving up my ~8 hours per week of strength training? I might as well try. I would create a plan to run a 2:45 marathon on a super minimalistic 8 week training program. My weekly mileage started in the high teen’s and peaked in the low 20’s. I ran between 2 and 3 times per week while lifting 4 times per week and going to 1 spin class per week. On average my schedule was:
- Monday: upper body.
- Tuesday: lower body and spin class:
- Wednesday: sometimes a tough running workout of 20-30 minutes, sometimes not.
- Thursday: upper body and a 20 minute easy run.
- Friday: lower body
- Weekend: long run
8 weeks out. 13 mile run, alternating between 1 mile @ 8:30, 1 mile @ 6:20 (6 total miles at race pace). I knew that in 8 weeks, I wasn’t going to have time to do a bunch of easy long runs then gradually start adding in race pace work. I needed to start working on race pace now to get as comfortable with 6:20 miles as possible. Jogging 8:00 minute miles on the weekends for 2 months was definitely not going to get me across the finish line in 2:45, but if I could squeeze in as much race pace volume as I could handle, then I might just have a shot. On this run, I originally planned to run 16 miles, having grand delusions that I would do 16 today, then progress to 22-24 miles the following month. Well, 6:20 miles completely WRECKED me and it wasn’t hard to talk myself into turning around early. This probably should have been my first warning sign that a 2:45 marathon wasn’t realistic. After this run my calves were so sore I could barely walk for 2-3 days.
7 weeks out. 16 miles, alternating between 1 mile 6:15, 1 mile @ 8:30 (8 total miles at race pace). Despite feeling beat up for a few days after the last long run, I found the rest of the week to go fairly smoothly, and I was surprised to find that I felt really good on this run. Today would be the day that I did what I had originally wanted to do last week. I made it through all 16 miles, but it was tough. I was still sore 2-3 days afterwards, but overall I felt way better than I had last week. I was really optimistic that if I kept improving at this rate, maybe I could do this after all.
6 weeks out. OFF. 10 miles @ 8:45. This was not meant to be an off weekend. My original plan was to run for 18-20 miles today and take next weekend to go for an easy bike ride instead. However, the last two weekends of long runs that were beyond my actual ability level had taken their toll on me and I only made it through the first mile of my planned workout before I got the feeling I should call it quits before I did any more damage to myself. Decided to enjoy the hot summer day and jog for a while.
5 weeks out. 17 mile run, alternating between @ 1 mile @ 6:15, 1 mile @ 8:15 (9 total miles at race pace). After a weekend off from tough running, I was happy with how far my fitness had come in just 3-4 weeks, but I was also having doubts about I was supposed to make the jump from 9 x mile repeats at race pace to 26 of them in a row. I wanted to see how I felt stringing together race pace miles, so I planned to run 10 miles at race pace in a row the next weekend.
4 weeks out. 15 mile run. 10 miles @ 6:30, then 5 miles @ 7:15. The plan was to run 10 miles at race pace, and it is basically what I did. I started a little slow but finished fast and added some relatively quick miles to the cool down. However, I was pretty disappointed with how challenging the run felt to me. Obviously, 10 miles at race pace is a lot tougher all at once than it is with easy recovery jogs mixed into it. I adjusted my plan for the next 3 long runs to include longer stretches of running at race pace.
3 weeks out. 17 mile run. 2 miles @ 6:10/mile, 1 mile @ 8:10, repeat x 6. The weather really cooled off and I knew that it would be hillier in New York than it is here in Minneapolis, so I decided to make my race pace 6:10 instead of 6:20. I felt great running the 2 mile stretches @ 6:10 pace and felt fully recovered within a minute of the recovery mile. My average pace for this workout came out to be 6:45/mile, which seemed pretty good to me given the structure of the workout. I felt like I could at least run 20-25 seconds per mile faster if I held a steady pace rather than oscillating between fast and slow. At this point, I felt like I could probably sustain my goal race pace for 18 miles in a race setting. I had 2 more long runs to figure out how to bump that up to 26.
9 days out. 15 mile run alternating between 1 mile @ 6:10, 1 mile @ 7:10. This is where the plan completely fell apart. I was suppose to do this run 2 weeks out and another run 1 week out, but I kept having to push my run forward a day and eventually it was almost the next weekend. I would have to settle for just one more long run. Knowing that it was my last long run before the race, I wanted to get in 16-18 miles with some 3-4 mile stretches at race pace. I started with an easy mile to warm-up, but it quickly turned into a not-so-easy mile. Today was the first day of snow in Minnesota and it was frigid. A mix of snow and rain was coming down in sub-freezing temps with strong winds, but being completely stupid I was under-dressed for it. My teeth were chattering and I was shivering, but I was not going to mess up my run. No turning back, no postponing it for another day. I had already messed up the last weekend, so I I had no choice but to run through the cold and hope for the best. Yet, I couldn’t run anything slower than a 7 minute mile without getting too cold, so I changed the workout plan on the spot and just tried to keep moving and keep warm. I ended up running an average pace of 6:40 by alternating between 6:10 and 7:10 and honestly wanted to add another few miles to the run, but my skin was completely numb and I didn’t think staying outside any longer would be a good idea, nor would an extra 3 miles make much of a difference to my fitness at this point.
Based on my last few workouts, I knew that 6:20 pace for the marathon was not realistic, but I did not think it was impossible. If I had a really good day and ran a smart race, there was a slight chance I could pull it off. I figured matching my old PR of a 6:30 pace was more likely, but I may as well try to meet my original goal.
Race Week: The race was on Sunday, but we arrived on Tuesday. My wife and I decided to turn our trip to New York into a vacation. It was our first trip since we moved back from Hawaii earlier in the year, so we were excited to have a full week to explore the city. While I really did want to do well at marathon and see how effective my training program had been, I was still not taking this race nearly as seriously as I used to treat big events. Yes, I wanted to run a 2:45. But at the end of the day, I was just running for run and wasn’t going to let the race get in the way of having a fun vacation. So… the morning before our flight to NYC, I did some quick 30 second intervals to get my legs moving, then decided not to think about running at all until race day. Morgan and I jogged 2 miles (12:00/mile?) one morning and I did a few strides on Friday, but other than that, I didn’t run at all. On the contrary, we explored the city by foot and accumulated an average of 13 miles per day of walking each day up until the race. We “rested” the day beforehand by only walking 8 miles. I think I’m in decent shape, but I don’t power walk very often, so after more than 50 miles of it in just a few days, my legs were actually pretty tired, especially my hip flexors. We went to 3 restaurants a day, every day, leading up to the race, and it’s safe to say that it was my least healthy week of eating I can remember since I was in high school. I’m sure the combination of eating poorly and walking everywhere wasn’t doing me any favors, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Pre Race: The thing I hate most about big races like New York is the fact that you have to wake up at least 5 hours before you start running. They keep you waiting in the start village for hours and by the time you have walked to the metro, taken the metro to the shuttles, gone through security, and waited for 3 hours in the start village, you feel like you’ve already run a marathon before you reach the starting line. With this in mind, I decided to try to remove some of the stress of race morning by taking an Uber to the start village and arriving extra early. I was so early that I was literally the third runner to arrive and the security check point to enter the start village wasn’t going to open for another 30 minutes. I arrived at 5:30 AM, but within a half hour the first shuttle buses from Manhattan begin arriving. My race started in 4 hours and 10 minutes. I tried to keep my walking to a minimum, but I paced a little bit to stay warm. Somehow I still managed to walk 4 miles before the race started.
Race Start: Based on my wave assignment, I knew the slowest people in my corral would still be going for a sub-3 hour marathon, so I wasn’t too worried about where I was going to be starting. In fact, I thought it would be good to start closer towards the back so that I wouldn’t get carried away on the first uphill mile. Unfortunately this wasn’t the best idea…or was it? Once I crossed the starting line, I still had to power walk the first 30-45 seconds of the race before I could start jogging. I could have sworn I was running a 10 minute mile at this point, but my GPS data shows a sub-7 pace on an uphill, or a grade adjusted pace of 6:17/mile. I thought I was running way too slow so I wasted energy zig-zagging in and out of runners, but I should have just cruised. It would have been better to lose a minute running too slow than to waste a bunch of energy running around hundreds of people. In the end, a grade adjust pace of 6:17 for mile 1 was actually pretty good, but the race clock showed 7:15 (it took me 20-30 seconds to cross the start) and it made me feel like I needed to pick up the pace to make up for lost time. The next few miles were slightly downhill, but there was also a moderate headwind. My grade adjusted pace settled around a 6:10 pace which was a little too fast, but I felt confident I could keep it up. With the crowd support and adrenaline, I didn’t feel like I was working at all until around mile 10 – I was able to keep up the pace, but I doubt was creeping in.
Mile 10 split: 1:02:23. Average pace: 6:14/mile.
Losing Confidence: Miles 10-18 were basically on pace, but my legs were starting to resist. The dew point was in the mid 50’s with humidity near 100%, so despite it feeling like cool weather to spectators, I was dripping sweat and felt like I was running laps inside of a wet sock. Some of the bridges in the middle of the course zapped energy out of me and by mile 18, despite still being on pace, I knew that a crash was imminent and 2:45 was not going to happen. I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be looking at 2:50, 2:55, or 3:00 when I crossed the finish line.
Mile 20 split: 2:07:55. Average pace: 6:24/mile.
Miles 20-26.2 a.k.a. 10k of despair: My mile 20 split was a little bit off from where I wanted to be, but I knew things were headed downhill (figuratively). I began to beat myself up pretty bad and lose the motivation to keep pushing. I’m not sure how much harder I could have pushed, but I realistically should have still been able run under 2:55. At least 2 minutes of my slow down on the last 10k was simply me being a weanie, but the other 8 minutes of lost time was inadequate preparation / fitness.
Finish: 2:56:56. Average pace: 6:45/mile
Post Race Poncho: In the end, I crossed the finish line in 2:56:56 feeling pretty miserable and disappointed in myself for not putting more time and effort into my training. If I had commit 2 hours every weekend to my long run, why hadn’t I come up with another 2 hours of training to do during the week? Did I really expect to run a 2:45 marathon on 3 hours of running per week? As they wrapped me in my post-race poncho, despite my continued dislike of road running, I was already thinking about other marathons on the calendar where I could redeem myself and run a successful 2:45 – marathons that I could properly train for. If I could run a 2:57 on 3 hour training weeks, I could certainly run 2:50 on a 4 hour training week and 2:45 on a 5 hour training week right?
So, despite promising myself at the start line that New York City would be my last road race for a long time, I just can’t let it be the end.
Lake Wobegon Marathon: May 12th, 2018. My goal is to run a 2:40 marathon and I’m going all in. Think I can’t improve 17 minutes in 6 months? Check back here every few weeks for updates on my training. I’ll be documenting every mile. I’m excited to see how fast I can run if I commit to my training like I’ve never done before.