You be the Coach: Why Did Mike Bonk the Houston Marathon?

Today, I want to ask for YOUR coaching expertise.

Michael emailed me recently about his race at the 2013 Houston Marathon. He is a 57 year old runner and triathlete with a previous PR of 3:55. I wrote him a custom training plan, which resulted in him getting a 12 minute PR without any injuries.

But his race was a failure in one important way: the last 4 miles were a painful positive split and he missed his Boston Qualifying time by a mere 3 minutes.

Running the final miles of a marathon is always a struggle: your body is fighting hours of running-induced fatigue and your muscles’ sugar stores are on the brink of depletion.

Good race nutrition and adequate training are a must to ensure you’re prepared for the rigors of 26.2 miles. And make no mistake, it will be difficult! Some runners think racing should be easy…

Now, I want to share Michael’s email with you. Then I’ll provide some background on his training for the Houston Marathon and you can leave your coaching opinion in the comments on why his pace slowed so dramatically.

Michael’s email:

I want to thank you for your help in preparing for Houston Marathon. The plan went well. This was the first time in five years of marathon training that I did not get injured. I usually develop hamstring and/or sciatic problem that makes me cut back on my training and has on a couple of occasion affected my race day, too.

The only problem I ran into wasn’t able to do the last long run before my taper. I managed to strain my calf helping my daughter move and it was aggravating me the next day. I decided to take it easy instead of running 20 miles on it and possibly making it worse.

Race day was cold(40), windy (15-20), and rainy. I decided to try and negative split my run and start off doing the first two miles at 8:35 pace, then miles 3-9 at 8:25 pace.  Miles 10-18 at 8:19 pace and then miles 19 to finish at 8:10. I hit close to my splits up to mile 18. I was feeling good. After mile 5 I was passing everybody. My quads were aching a little, but I was feeling good, however I was finding it hard to hold a 8:10 pace, but I was able to sustain a 8:15.

When I got to mile 24 I had slowed to 8:30 and my legs were starting to feel real heavy. I could feel my pace slowing and now people were passing me. The last 2.2 miles I held a 9:30 pace. I finished 3:43 a new PR for me (by 12 mins).

The disappointing news is that I missed my BQ by 3 mins. Still I was happy with my race. I came into the race injury free and feeling more rested than any marathon I can think of.  I had a good plan that I executed well.  When I crossed that line I knew that I had given it my best effort.

This is third time that I held a good pace only to fade in the last few miles. Any thoughts as to why this is happening? and how I can avoid it from happening again?   I’m eating according to the carb-loading article on RunYourBQ. I took in almost 700 grams of carbs 48 hours before the race (I’m 75KG).  I ate a carby breakfast three hours before the marathon and took in over 500 calories during the race. I don’t think it’s related to nutrition or hydration.

Thanks for your help.


Before Houston, Michael dedicated 13 weeks to marathon training using a PR Race Plan. As this was his seventh marathon and he’s a triathlete with a lot of swimming and cycling, he has an accomplished athletics background.

Over those 13 weeks, his long runs built from 10 miles to 19 miles. He ran two 18 milers and two 19 milers with a progression of fartleks, hill workouts, and tempo runs that matched his fitness level.

So, what happened? 

Leave your comment below by 2/15/2013 at 11:59pm EDT and give your opinion on why Michael hit the wall at Houston. I’ll pick the best/my favorite response and the winner gets free membership to the Strength Running Boot Camp.

After two days, I’ll post my reply to Michael for all to see. Good luck!


EDIT: The winner of the coaching contest is Hamish! (I’ll email you soon)

This was a difficult decision and I could have easily picked about ten people.

But in this case, simplicity wins: Michael didn’t run enough long runs during training. You’ll see that his preparation was only 13 weeks and during that time he built from 10 to 19 miles. That only left time for four long runs at 18 and 19 miles (two each).

That’s not good enough to have a “perfect” marathon – which I define as a PR where you feel good with no bonk.

Many tried to diagnose ULTRA specific things that are just impossible to know from the amount of information here, like muscle fiber composition and which muscle in his leg is dominant. Don’t get lost in the weeds – focus on the “big wins” like long runs.

Ultimately, Michael’s bonk was probably caused by a few issues: going too fast in the middle miles, under-fueling, and not running enough long runs. But in my view, his biggest mistake was not starting his training about 16 weeks before the marathon and being able to start his long runs around 13-15 miles.

That’s how you crush the marathon.

Thanks all – great stuff here! I’ll try to do this more often 🙂

Here’s my exact response to Michael:

After looking over your email and training plan again, I think the issue is your consistency of long runs. You only had 13 weeks before Houston when I wrote your plan and your long runs weren’t that long for the marathon. So the build-up was aggressive and only resulted in one 20 mile run (that you said you had to miss) so you got in two 18 milers and two 19 milers.

There’s the most likely culprit. If you start a marathon plan already comfortable doing 14-15 miles with 16 weeks until the race, you can run more long runs in the 19-21 mile range (with maybe some of it at a faster pace). This is simply a case of being slightly under-prepared.

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