Marathon Pacing: 6 Lessons Learned from a PR Near Miss

There’s no better feeling than crossing the finish line with a new Personal Record. Missing that PR might make all that training feel like a waste, but it doesn’t have to!

Failure

Note from Jason: This post is written by Christine Sandvik, one of my former athletes who has written for SR in the past on morning running and running beyond the marathon.

I had just passed the Mile 26 sign when I finally allowed myself to check my Garmin. After sticking with the 3:30 pace group for the first half of the race, I had steadily pushed about a minute or so ahead of them over the next 13 miles.  

The end was tantalizingly close.  After a training cycle filled with highs and lows, a new PR was finally well within my reach.

Or so I thought.

I ran my marathon PR of 3:29:42 at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Even though I had run several strong marathons since then, I had been unable to better that time.  But I had pushed through sickness and training challenges, and I was convinced that today was the day.  

With less than 0.2 miles to go, I looked down and saw my Garmin hit 3:29.

What?  How was that possible?  I hoped my glycogen-deprived brain might just be misunderstanding what I saw, but that wasn’t the case.  Even if I conjured up a sub-6 minute pace to the finish, I wasn’t getting under 3:30 today.  

What had gone wrong with my marathon pacing?

I hit the finish line in 3:30:08, proud of my strong, consistent effort, but overwhelmingly disappointed by such a near miss.  Once I got over the initial disappointment, I took a strategic look back at how I could have eliminated those frustrating 26 seconds.

Marathon runners know just how many variables go into producing a strong race and the ever-elusive PR.  Training is just one of those variables.  

Race day produces its own set of challenges, and nailing your goal marathon pace while trying to focus on nutrition, weather, crowds and unexpected issues like bathroom breaks can be overwhelming.

Learning how to manage your marathon pace is a skill that you can hone with time and experience.  But I’m hoping you can take advantage of my mistakes (along with what I did right!) to shorten your learning curve and earn that PR.

Lesson 1: Let workouts dictate your marathon pace range

Training for a marathon is a lengthy process, full of ups and downs.  You will probably never experience the “perfect” training cycle, where you run every workout as scheduled and hit your target paces every time.  Life usually conspires to get in the way.

My training leading up to the Miami Marathon on January 29th was no different.  I had nearly 3 months of “perfect” training before things got challenging.  I was hitting all my scheduled mileage, nailing workouts, and my marathon pace runs were suggesting that my race pace might be faster than I originally thought.

But then the holidays came: life got overwhelmingly busy and I got sick.  I took a cutback week, and then was forced to take another when I just couldn’t shake a nasty cold.  

My final long run, a 22 miler with half the miles at goal race pace, started out ok and quickly turned into a disaster.  I walked.  I cried.  And self-doubt rapidly set in.  I know better than to beat myself up over one crappy workout, but knowing what you should do and actually doing it are two very different things.

I tried to put the long run behind me and less than a week later ran a strong medium long run with marathon pace miles.  It gave me a bit more confidence, but I still wasn’t sure about my current fitness.

Given the ups and downs in my training, and knowing that Miami had the potential to be hot on race day, I had to plan my race pace accordingly.  Just like having “A”, “B” and “C” race goals is an ideal way to go into any important race, knowing the pace range that will get you to those goals is also a necessity.  

On a perfect day, I was hoping to get close to 3:25, around 7:50/mile pace.  Given that my last month of training hadn’t been too spectacular, I was just hoping to get close to 3:30 (8:00/mile pace) and earn a PR if the conditions allowed.

When planning your goal race pace, be honest with yourself in evaluating where you are at and what you hope to accomplish.  Look at your long runs and marathon pace miles and be realistic with what you can handle.  Think about the course profile (flat or hilly) and the potential weather conditions.

On the other hand, don’t sell yourself short! I may have let my missed mileage and final long run get into my head more than they should have.  My body was ready to be pushed on race day, and I had a little too much left in the tank when I crossed the finish line.  

Although it’s tough to remember in the moment, one bad long run or missed week of hard training will not ruin an entire training cycle.  Challenging stretch goals, along with a little faith in yourself, are the best way to continue to grow and improve as a runner.

Lesson 2: It’s all about restraint

If you want to run a marathon PR, negative splits are the most efficient way to get you there.  And that means running with restraint in the early miles of your race.  

As much as we hear this advice, we’re often terrible at its execution.  The excitement of race day is hard to resist (Jason’s 2014 Boston Marathon is a great example of this!).

But be strong. Hold back.  You will ALWAYS pay for it in the later miles if you don’t.  With over 26 miles ahead of you, you’ll have plenty of time to ease into your appropriate pace.

Running with restraint is one of the things I did well in Miami. Maybe too well.  My splits show that I was gradually dialing down my pace as the race progressed.  But in retrospect, I may have held myself back too much given my goal.

MIAMI RACE SPLITS:

When you run with restraint, you walk a very fine line between holding back too much and not enough.  On a flat course like Miami, you want to run about 5-10 seconds slower than goal race pace for the first 1-3 miles, then run your target pace through mile 20, and then push yourself over the final 10k. I was probably too cautious in the first half of the marathon and didn’t push hard enough to make up that time in the second half.  

On a rolling or hilly course, pace becomes secondary to effort.  The goal is to keep your effort level roughly the same through the first 20 miles, even though your pace will vary with the terrain.  

On a course like Boston with lots of downhill sections early in the race, restraint is especially important or you’ll pay for your mistake in the final miles!

Lesson 3: Making up time: bathroom breaks and other unexpected issues

No matter how well you plan your pre-race hydration, fueling, and bathroom visits, occasionally you will need to make an unexpected stop on course.  Looking back, I should have trusted my instincts and made one last bathroom stop prior to lining up at the start.  I was worried about getting to my corral on time, and tried to convince myself I’d be fine.

I held out until mile 4, then was forced to dart in the port-o-pot as quickly as I could.  Understandably, that mile was my slowest at 8:24.  I knew I shouldn’t push too hard, too quickly to catch up, but I was feeling a little panicked about the unexpected stop.  As a result, my next mile split was 7:28, significantly faster than I intended.

I was lucky.  Throwing in a mile that was closer to tempo pace didn’t cause me to blow up (and looking back, the ease of that mile might have been a sign I could have been pushing a little harder).  But what I did was risky.  Don’t try to make up the time all at once.

A better approach would have been to make up the time gradually over several miles.  Because I was still following the pace group at that point, my goal was to get them back in sight.  But I didn’t need to rush and push the pace quite so hard.

If you need to make an unexpected stop on course, try not to panic.  As long as you feel up to it, pick the pace up ever so slightly (no more than 5-10 seconds per mile, max) and before you know it you’ll be back on track.

Lesson 4: The mental side of pacing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Mental tenacity is an essential component of distance racing.  The more resilient you can make yourself through both physical and mental training prior to race day, the more you will benefit.

When you’re racing longer distances such as the marathon, your mind can go from blissfully happy to utterly panicked in a heartbeat.  Even when you’re feeling good physically, moments of doubt may begin to run through your head.  Knowing when to pay attention and when to quiet the chatter can make all the difference.

Maintaining an even pace and hitting negative splits late in a race is as much about mental focus as it is about physical training.  You have to plan ahead for the rough patches so that you know how to deal with negative emotions and sensations as they arise.

For some, it helps to broaden your focus.  Look at your surroundings or rock out to some motivating music to keep moving forward.  For others, it may help to narrow your focus.  Clear your head by focusing on a specific physical technique, such as your cadence, arm swing, or your breathing.

I used both techniques in Miami.  When the course turned into a headwind or the rain got heavy, I turned inward and focused on a steady, aerobic effort.  When the opportunity allowed, I tried to appreciate the surroundings.  And near the end, I turned to music to carry me through.  

I had plenty of moments of self-doubt, but I was able to let them go by focusing on one mile at a time and tackling teach one in a specific, actionable way.

Even though we are physically trying to maintain a certain minute per mile pace throughout the marathon, it’s our brain that will help us stay consistent.  So remember the following:

  • Rough patches will (usually) pass.
  • You can hold your pace longer than you think.
  • Pay attention to specific physical sensations and address them if necessary.
  • Distract yourself if it helps.
  • Turn inward and increase focus when needed.
  • Take each mile as it comes and don’t get ahead of yourself.

Lesson 5: Pace groups – yes or no?

The Miami Marathon was only the second time I decided to follow a pace group, with the goal of earning a new sub-3:30 PR.  Pace groups can be a useful tool, and most pacers work diligently to get you across the line in the designated time.  But there are definitely pros and cons to sticking with a group while racing.

I decided to start with a pace group in the first half of the race to relieve the mental burden of maintaining an appropriate pace.  It allowed me to settle in and follow the leader.  But in an effort to stick with the group, I pushed too hard to catch up after my pit stop, and then could have pushed ahead of the group from miles 7-13.

Because I chose to put complete faith in the pace group leaders for 13 miles, I never looked at my Garmin.  I lost awareness of my own sense of pacing for the race, which hurt me in the later miles. In the end, the pace group ran slower than anticipated and even though I was slightly ahead of them, I still fell short of my goal.  

Remember: pace groups leaders are not infallible.  The choice to follow them is a personal one, but my caveat is always to stay aware of your own pacing and respect the need to slow down or speed up in various parts of the race.  

Let the camaraderie and group effort carry you where it can, but trust your intuition and run your own race.

Lesson 6: Use your watch or GPS strategically

Marathon Pacing 101

This was my biggest mistake on race day.

I tend to race by feel and avoid looking at my Garmin.  Learning to run by feel is an essential skill you should practice often.  When you are trying to run a certain goal pace for a race, it’s critical to spend a lot of time at that pace in your training.  You need to learn how that pace feels and what it takes to maintain it.

Being overly reliant on your GPS device can be detrimental.  Why?

  1. GPS devices can be unreliable in remote locations or in the middle of cities with lots of tall buildings that interfere with reception.
  2. Focusing on pace on a hilly course will prevent you from running by effort, forcing you to work either too hard or not hard enough.
  3. If a race isn’t going as well as you hoped, staring at your pace can be demoralizing.  Watching the miles go by increasingly slowly can get into your head and ruin your race.

But watches and GPS devices DO have their place!  They can help prevent you from going out too fast in the early miles, and remind you when it’s time to push yourself late in the race.  

Had I paid attention to my time with 10k to go instead of several hundred yards, I could have easily shaved 30 seconds off my time.  Needless to say, I won’t make that mistake again.  Run by feel as much as possible but use technology when you need it!

Even for experienced runners, effective marathon pacing is a challenging skill that can require you to be a Zen master one moment and a drill sergeant the next.

I hope the lessons I’ve learned can help you pace yourself to a new PR in your next race!

 

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Comments

  1. Great article. Always keeping things in perspective. Thank you.

  2. Andrew Turner says:

    Really interesting to read what you say.
    I think running with a pace group was the big mistake. My own opinion is that you are the only one who knows what you can do and running with a pace groups means you may run faster where you would not and slower where you would not. All runners are unique so pace groups are great if you do not have the confidence to put yourself to the test.
    Obviously will not be long before you shatter that PR. Stick to your guns and go it alone.

  3. Running a sub-two hour half didn’t happen right away and I started to think it just wasn’t realistic. Turns out I didn’t know what I was doing , surprise, surprise! After a few years of learning a lot of running lessons the hard way, reading a boat load of books and talking to trainers, now a sub-two is just a great practice race and that still blows my mind.