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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  1. Wrong gear maybe? His body was fighting the cold and lost to many calories in the battle?

  2. It could have been the stress of the weather — perhaps, despite his slower pace at the start, his body was working harder (higher heart rate) than he realized, burning a higher percentage of sugar than he would have under better circumstances.

  3. Jason,
    Congrats to Michael on a new PR. I train in a rather old school way. If Michael hadn’t run his 20 miler prior to taper, then he should have perhaps run more conservatively than he did on raceday, till mile 20. I think he picked up the pace a bit early into his run despite the plan to run -ve splits. Typically my “old-school” methodology says we hold pace till mile 20 and then begin the -ve splitting. While everyone gets tired in the 2nd half, for a 3:40 finish, Michael didn’t need anything faster than 8:24/mile. I know he started slow but I think miles 10-18 perhaps cost him. After all, he would have been barely 90 sec- 2 mins behind the target time at mile 19 despite his slow & steady start. Taking off too early must have made his muscles tighten up. It would help if we had a mile-splits till mile 20 to check this hypothesis.

  4. Jason,
    Congrats to Michael on a new PR. I train in a rather old school way. If Michael hadn’t run his 20 miler prior to taper, then he should have perhaps run more conservatively than he did on raceday, till mile 20. I think he picked up the pace a bit early into his run despite the plan to run -ve splits. Typically my “old-school” methodology says we hold pace till mile 20 and then begin the -ve splitting. While everyone gets tired in the 2nd half, for a 3:40 finish, Michael didn’t need anything faster than 8:24/mile. I know he started slow but I think miles 10-18 perhaps cost him. After all, he would have been barely 90 sec- 2 mins behind the target time at mile 19 despite his slow & steady start. Taking off too early must have made his muscles tighten up. It would help if we had mile-splits till mile 20 to check this hypothesis.

  5. From reading the article, the only thing that really stands out to me is that there wasn’t a clearly defined timing/race plan going into the race, it seems to have been decided last minute, and negative splitting in a marathon to that extent from 8:35 to 8:10 is, in my opinion, not realistic, certainly taking the weather into account. There’s my two cents worth! But well done on the PR, and better running next time 🙂

  6. I’m a big believer in the “fast finish” long run, and at least one long run with a substantial portion at goal marathon pace. Mentally, both of these workouts prepare me for the later, painful sections on race day, and give me the confidence that I can still dial up some speed when I need it. Carb intake on race day is also key. Do the math and determine how much you’ll need to sustain your glycogen levels and make sure you refuel religiously (especially early!).

  7. Well done to Michael on the PR and hard luck on missing out for the BQ time. Personally I don’t think the last 20 miler being missed was the detrimental factor; I think the lack of a long established race plan going into the race, and trying to negative split from 8:35 to 8:10 with such weather conditions were the factors working against Michael.

  8. Great job Michael… However, the answer to this experience you had during the marathon is quite simple.
    – You should have run a minimum of 4 long runs 6 weeks prior to race day, with a 2 week taper.
    – Miles run should have been as follows:
    week 8 – 20 miles
    week 9 – 22 miles
    week 10 – 24 miles
    week 11 – 26 miles
    These long miles should have been run at a very easy pace.

  9. Congratulations on the new PR, Michael! Even though a PR is always good, it always sucks to be JUST shy of the goal time. From my time competing in swimming I’d almost rather miss my qualifying time by two seconds than by a tenth of a second haha.

    One long run before the race won’t be a huge detriment to your running fitness. It is a building block, but I don’t believe that a BQ time was missed just because of that one 20-miler. Resting your calf was probably a good idea.

    From what I’ve practiced on my long runs and my long bike/run brick sessions, 500 calories wouldn’t be nearly enough to sustain me for the race even if I split that up over the course of even a 3-hour race. Even though its highly individual, Michael could have very safely taken in another 350-400 calories. Even if his body could only process 250 calories/hr, that’d be approximately 940 calories. Taking in a few more might have given his muscles some extra push on those last four miles. I don’t know how he spaced it out but generally the second your body starts exercising would be a good time to start taking in your energy in intervals. Again, it’s individual, but for me I like to take in 90-110 calories every 15 to 20 minutes. Anything significantly over that would result in that bloated feeling.

    Aside from upping the nutritional intake, your pacing plan was pretty good. I don’t know what your mileage base is but putting myself in your shoes, I would have jogged an easy (10 minute mile) two miles before the marathon to loosen up followed with a few short accelerations just to open up your muscles, that way you could start with the 8:25 pace from the get-go. Increase the pace a little bit at the start of mile 8, then again at 20 for the last six miles.

    Keep it up!

  10. It looks like Michael was using the MARCO method instead of even splits, so may have resulted in too wide of a pace range from start to finish forcing too many miles too far below race pace in the upper miles. Staying within 5secs of goal pace instead of 10-15 secs might have led to a more consistent use of fuel throughout the race..

    • Thanks for your reply. I was using the Marco technique for the first time. It did provide with a better race stragegy of starging out slower (a problem I’ve had in the past). You may be right about the time gradient. I neglected to put in my report that I did take in 150 calories of carbs 45 mins before the start. Other wise I think my fueling was right on. I’ve bonked before and this was different feeling. I think my problem in Houston (and the races before) was muscular endurance. While I did do more core and strength work I think Jason is correct that I didn’t get the long mileage in that I needed for my ultimate goal. But, a 12 min PR means I was doing some things right. Thanks again for your insightful response.

  11. I would speculate that from his weight (75kg) he is probably not 100% suited to run the marathon, having a less favorable ratio of fast/slow twitch muscle fibres which results in worse economy in the longer races. Add the fact that he often overtrains and probably rests too much before the races, thereby losing efficiency and blood volume. He needs to slow down and lessen the stress on his body and probably run more mileage, in a sensible way. A drastic taper may also not be the best for him, but a less reduction in mileage may be more suitable.

  12. Sounds to me like he started out at too fast a pace (especially given the weather and the calf issue). He increased his pace after only the second mile! I would have advised him to start with a conservative pace (for him, maybe 9:00) and hold that for at least six miles. Then he could start picking up the speed a bit, and he would have had enough energy left to avoid the heavy legs and slowdown.

  13. I think that Michael made a couple of mistakes. His pace plan for the race was geared around a 3:38 marathon finish, giving him a 2 minute buffer for his BQ time of 3:40. A 3:38 marathon requires an average pace of 8:19/mile and a 3:40 marathon requires an average pace of 8:24/mile.

    In my opinion, his pace plan was too slow at the start and too fast at the finish. He started out at an 8:35 pace and didn’t settle into his target average pace of 8:19 until mile 10. To make up for his slow start, he had to speed up at the end of the race, when he was already fatigued.

    I would have suggested that he start out no slower than 8:25 for the first 2 miles, then settle into an 8:19 pace until the mile 20. If he felt good at that point, he could pick up the pace slightly to about 8:15. If not, he should try to hold the 8:19 pace until the end.

    Michael said that he consumed 700 grams of carbs in the 48 hours before his race. Nutrition experts like Nancy Clark recommend 3-5 g/lb/day of carbs when loading, which would be 495-825 g/day or about 2 times what Michael consumed.

    He also said that he took in 500 calories during the race. Experts recommend that you consume about 250 calories per hour during a marathon. For his 3:40 minute race, he should have consumed over 900 calories.

    In my opinion, Michael tried to push the pace too fast after a slow start, when he was already fatigued and running short on glycogen. The result was a bonk at mile 24.

  14. Mike schreiber says:

    Congrats to Michael on the PR. This has also been a big issue for me. In 2010 I ran my 6th marathon and PRed by 30 minutes. However the last 5 miles were way off pace. I believe I did start out too fast which is always a big concern. However I feel for me and for Michael the lack of long runs were a big issue. If you want your legs to cooperate and fight through the fatigue late in the race they have to have experienced it a time or two. So if his goal was a 3:40 marathon he should have had atleast one if not two long run that lasted 3:40 (somewhere in the 20-22 mile range). Starting out with easy early miles and progressing throughout the run down to marathon pace for the last few miles. Having your legs adjusted and used to moving for that long will help come race day the last few miles.

  15. I don’t know what his normal training pace was like, but it sounds as though he was going way too fast from mile 9-19. I think a slower acceleration would have prevented him hitting that “wall”. (At least, this is exactly what happened to me during my last marathon.)

  16. I can see how Michael would be disappointed with missing a BQ by minutes- but a 12 minute PR is awesome! Nothing wrong with trying to figure out how to improve for next time though.

    In my opinion, it sounded a bit like Michael had some last minute decisions that went unproven in training. It sounded to me like he chose a race week fueling strategy that he did not practice in training. The last few long runs need to be treated as race rehearsals, everything from what you choose to eat the day before, to breakfast, to fueling strategy during the run, and also race pace. In Michael’s description, he describes coming up with a pacing plan that he came up with race morning. Pacing the race is something that should have been nailed in the training sessions, and decided long before race morning.

    In my opinion he should have had a solid race week plan for fueling and a proven race plan for pacing. It sounded like his pre-race breakfast and race fueling strategy were good, but he hit a wall and I think if the pacing was set up to be consistant with what he had explored in training there would have been less of a surprise on race day.

  17. Congrats to Michael on a new PR! I love this quiz and can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this.

    I have never seen anyone pace in the manner Michael did. It makes me wonder if that had a role to play — he was going for a faster pace on already tired legs. And I suspect his training didn’t train him for splitting in that manner.

    Also, seems like a couple more long runs would have helped Michael’s body to better adapt to optimize carb/fat burn during the run.

  18. Very nice p.r.!
    In my opinion, not enough long runs in training. From my own experiences, every marathon training block the first 3-4 long runs (20-22 miles) always finish in quite a bit of discomfort. However after that there is a rapid improvement in comfort and even enjoyment in these. By 7 or 8 of these I feel the training adaptation has taken hold i.e. any more a bonus but not necessary. Pace has never been a goal on these runs. Do them as you feel. Marathons i have run without this long run progression have never gone well. Those with adequate long run build up very well. I’ve tried gels on one marathon and found no benefit. Fuelling before hand has been a few extra carbs but tapering and maintaining usual food intake often seems adequate enough. In summary i believe the training adaptation to maintain pace at the end of the marathon was due to lack of specific training to cope with this desire.
    Best of luck getting that qualifier next time!

  19. So far people have focused mostly on his pacing strategy and nutrition plan, but I think missing that last 20-miler probably had a lot to do with it as well. That last long run is designed to help you peak on race day, and by skipping it he essentially ended up with a month long taper which probably resulted in some lost fitness. Not to mention he didn’t get the fitness gains of that last long run either.

    Of course pacing and nutrition must have played a role too. If he ran “beyond his fitness” from miles 10 to 18, he probably burnt too much glycogen since his body wasn’t adapted to burning fat at that pace, resulting in the bonk. Maybe he could have staved it off by ingesting more calories, but my gut feeling is that missing that last long run is the thing that cost him.

    Looking forward to reading your opinion!

  20. There are some good points raised above, especially on the topic of fast finishing some of the longer runs and the pacing strategies, as well as being more aggressive in the carbo-loading. The fueling strategy is also a good suggestion too. But I’m a big believer in making ourselves less subject to potential variables like fueling issues, and one way to do that is focus a bit on glycogen efficiency in our training. This can be done in a few ways, such as doing a medium-long run one day followed by a long run the next, or running before breakfast on a regular basis. I’ve taken in far less than the recommended calories during my past two marathons and haven’t experienced any form of a bonk, and I attribute that largely to such training approaches.

  21. I think every serious marathoner can relate to the joy of a 12 minute PR and the agony of falling 3 minutes short of a goal time, so both congratulations and my sympathies to Michael. Personally, I think he should have added some squats and other lifting to the early phase of his training. In my latest, and most successful, marathon, I started with serious strength training, tapered that down to simple maintence work and added hill work, and then transitioned to lots of tempo runs, all the while very gradually ramping up mileage. It was my most injury-free training period, strongest marathon finish, and fastest overall time to date, and is a strategy I’ll stick with in the future. I think a similar strategy could help Michael. Having quad strength/durability from heavy squats early in the training period pays off in miles 24, 25, and 26, in my experience.

  22. I’d simply say not fueling often enough during the race? 100 calories EVERY 30 minutes. He should have consumed at LEAST 800 calories in that amount of time running – starting with something immediately before start of race.

    Great job though Michael!

  23. What a great accomplishment and PR! Looks like he went out too fast in the beginning and middle miles instead of saving some for the end of the race. Also agree with others who posted above that a long run of over 18-19 miles might have helped him also mentally get through those last few miles. Especially long runs with a fast finish!

  24. Chris Wilks says:

    It could be a few things. Looking at the temperature that seems to have been fairly forgiving but with high humidity it probably sapped Michaels energy fairly quickly and he might have simply ran out of juice toward the final quarter.

    The elevation chart also indicates that the race might have also hindered the final stretch as a downward running can be hard to maintain.

    Either way I’m give me right arm to have times even close to that!!!
    We done Michael. I could learn a lot from you.

  25. Hi Jason,
    Michael’s performance was wonderful, with a PR by 12 minutes! But in my opinion, he made a few small mistakes that cost him big.
    1. He did not take in enough fuel during the race. He should have figured out exactly how many gels he needed during his long training runs, and strategized about how many he would take and at what miles during the race.
    2. It sounds like he may have started out a little too fast. The first 2-3 miles are to be run 30 seconds to even 1 minute slower than goal pace, according to my coach (director of the Santa Barbara Int’l Marathon.) I have found personally that I do much better when I start out really slow and make up time a little later.
    3. I have found that replacing calories with carb calories for 4-5 days before a marathon is far better than carbo-loading the night before and the morning of the race. Michael should have consumed 4-5 g/kg of body weight for the whole week preceding the race.
    4. A critical mistake was not doing enough 20+ milers before the race, and not doing the last long run before the taper. I personally found my endurance to be significantly better when I did at least 3 20+ milers before the taper (ideally 22 miles.)
    5. I assume he tapered correctly – no info on what exactly he did at that time.
    6. If the course was hilly, I would have planned for a slower pace on the hills and a faster pace going down. I like to build in the slower pace because I know that I can’t sustain my goal pace on those.
    That’s it for my 2 cents!

  26. First off, kudos to Michael on the having the discipline to go for (and almost achieve!) a negative split, and on achieving such a large PR. Wow! I also ran the Houston Marathon and the weather conditions were positively miserable the first 5-6 miles until the rain finally let up a bit. If you were not dressed appropriately for rain/wind, I can see how precious energy early on went to merely staying warm.

    All that to say, I too am leaning towards a pacing issue with an attempt at such a large negative split (8:35 start vs 8:10 finish). Running almost 15 sec under goal race pace, which as Michael mentioned is an 8:24 for 3:40, seems like a *tall* order for the last 7.2 miles of a marathon unless he had specifically practiced this in some training runs. I don’t think even elite marathoners run such large splits?

    It raises a good question that perhaps Jason could speak to…when we read about going for a negative split, what is an appropriate way to tackle this? 8:35 to an 8:10 is definitely a negative split, but so is an 8:25 to 8:15!! One is much more extreme than the other.

    Also of slight note is that there are a few small hills (at least to us flatlanders!) right about the point where he mentions slowing down, though it sounds like those were not a huge factors if Michael has had this same problem in other races.

    Very informative to read everyone’s responses. Enjoyed getting to play coach! Great site!

  27. I’d say he did almost nothing wrong. Any time you PR, especially by as much as 720 seconds, there should be no sense of failure or regret. Sure, he slowed up toward the end and had a positive split… whatever. Regardless of Boston qualifying time, a 720 second improvement should always outshine the missing of a calculated mark that some statistician in Boston has set for men in your age group.

    However, I would say that helping his daughter do heavy lifting requires some thoughtful risk assessment. Any time someone is going to do some heavy lifting, and they haven’t been regularly weight training for at least the past few months, things could go wrong. Put that long run he missed back into the equation and perhaps his finish would have been a bit stronger.

    But again, we’re not talking about failure here. We’re talking about missing a greater improvement and settling for a great improvement. A great improvement is a long way from failure. Nice job, Michael. And great coaching along the way, Jason.

  28. Chuck Swanson says:

    Hello Jason,

    Thanks for the opportunity to see how much we’ve learned from our training. I think Michael ran a terrific race. Great PR and a wonderful time. I think his paces were fine and he seemed to hit them along the way until the end of course.

    I think his first mistake was not eating something small before his race. He ate 3 hours before the race but that’s too long to go without nutrition before the race. He started racing on an empty stomach and thus he burnt through his glycogen stores too quickly.

    His second mistake was only fueling with 500 calories during the race. This only amplified his issues with his poor fueling choices before the race. This lack of calories during the race along with his lack of calories before the race caused him to run out of fuel too quickly. Thus he hit the proverbial wall and bonked before the finish.

  29. Catherine Burke says:

    Congrats on your PR marathon race. I am no expert. i will leave this to coach. I wonder if your pace was too aggressive early on in the race, given the weather conditions, it being cold and windy you would have had to make an allowance for that. I also am of the belief that not many people are able to negative split in a marathon, it would seem in most cases the average marathon runner always slows down their pace in the last six miles. It would not have helped missing the longest scheduled run in your training plan either. I did not see any mention of you doing any race pace runs either, apparently this are great as a preparation.

  30. world_runner says:

    First of all, congratulations on a 12 minute PR. That is awesome for the marathon! I also have to give you kudos for skipping that last long run with your calf strain. So many runners would have just pushed through. You made the right decision so you could reach the starting line healthy.

    I have 3 possible suggestions (that turn into questions a bit) for why the last miles were not so great:

    1. Jason mentions in the blog post that your workouts included long runs, hills, fartleks and tempos. The one main workout I see missing is race pace runs. It sounds like you did not have a solid feel for what your race pace should be which meant that you were not running a steady pace throughout the race. Tempos, hills and fartleks are great but without a few race pace workouts how will you ever know how it feels to run and maintain your race pace?

    2. Michael said that he did not feel that it was related to hydration and nutrition. I am not sure I completely agree with that but without some additional information it is hard to tell. When during the race did he take in those 500 calories? Were the majority taken in during the first half of the race? What about his hydration? Was he hydrating from the very beginning? Or did he start pushing calories and hydration when the wheels started to come off? Proper hydration and nutrition are important but even more important is the timing of these two. Wait until too late in the race to start fueling and things fall apart in the end.

    3. Finally, this is a tough one and I suggest this one with the utmost respect and kindness. But, is it possible that Michael just fell apart mentally? He says that this is the third time he has fallen apart in the last few miles. Obviously, he is fit and has the physical ability to run a marathon. Admitting that it was a mental mistake is tough – even for me. We can measure workouts, times, distances and paces but it is harder to measure mental capacity and our ability to really push through when the going gets tough.

    With all that, let me just end with “Well Done!” once again. I know it is a bummer to have missed your BQ but you still had a great finishing time.

    • I do not think Michael mentally fell apart at all. I believe he was actually mentally tough. He continued to push ahead (with heavy legs – because of lost glycogen stores, which slows your pace) to that finish line. Great job pushing through Michael!

  31. Congrats on the PR! I would suggest working on glycogen depletion during some long runs and seeing if your body can handle caffeinated gus during the second half of the marathon. And keep in mind there is always another marathon to race.

  32. Consistent bonking at the same points in races, in my experience, is usually attributed to::

    Race day fueling…not getting enough calories in the early stages of a race (this seems to be my personal handicap).

    This will cause mental fatigue FIRST, then when your body really starts to drag, it’s hard to get your head screwed on enough to cover those last couple of miles even if you’re well-trained and fully capable of finishing strong (which I believe Michael was).

  33. Some of the other commenters noted some good things. However, a few things jumped out at me from the description:

    1. It’s clear he went out way too fast. By the time he was 5 miles in, he was already running at (or at least trying to hit, even though he admits he couldn’t hold the pace) his final goal time for the final miles of the race. Classic minutes-in-the-bank strategy, whether he realized it or not. Unless you were conservatively pacing the race or recent training suggested a faster pace could be supported (and I’m guessing that’s not likely, given his goals), this wasn’t going to work. It burns fuel faster.

    As a side note, his pacing plan he spelled out was one for a 3:44 marathon. He actually did beat his goal time, though didn’t get the BQ. (I’m guessing that was his stretch goal.)

    2. Houston is a flat course – it rolls a little at the beginning, but the elevation variations aren’t major. (There’s a reason hill training in Houston consists of running overpasses or possibly Memorial Park.) If his quads were aching early, it was definitely an indication he was pushing things too fast too early.

    3. No one’s mentioned weather, and that’s a huge factor. Houston is a loop, so that high wind was going to suck some extra energy out of him at some point on the course, especially when you combine it with wet and cold weather. Such weather nominally requires resetting expectations on pace, even just a little bit. If his pacing plan was his goal time (supported by training feedback on paces), then going out too fast rather even more conservatively definitely depletes the stores.

    4. While he mentions calories, there is no mention of his hydration strategy. That can be huge, particularly in unfavorable weather conditions. Cold, windy and wet all can result in needing more fluids while the body tries to keep itself warm.

    5. IMO, not a problem that he missed a long run. He appears to be an experienced endurance athlete (triathlons and at least one previous marathon attempt), so avoiding aggravating an injury is the wise course. In fact, I have found myself to be fresher in races despite skipping (for time slotting issues) or reducing the duration of a long run late in a training cycle. Some of my best results have come in those types of situations.

    6. Sometimes, it’s just not your day, though he admits it was a great result that he was happy with. You program things as much as you can, but in the end, you don’t get the result you would love to get. But then you should get right back out there, build on your new foundation, and try again. Good luck, Michael, and congrats on the PR.

  34. Michael did nothing wrong. He ran the best race he could and fell a few minutes short.

    Perhaps next time around he’ll add some more long runs? Maybe he could start using a heart rate monitor and pace by heart rate? But when it comes down to it, it’s a freaking marathon! It’s 26.2 miles. It’s hard. Sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough.

  35. Without knowing how his heart rate over the course of the race (where he was running relative to his lactate threshold), it’s hard to say whether or not his goal time was, perhaps, just a bit beyond his ability at this particular moment in time. I personally prefer to do my LSD runs by heart rate, as opposed to pace. This might be something he could look at for next time. (The point being that sometimes you THINK you’re training the way you should be, but, actually, you’re not. Your pace is too fast to train the system you’re trying to train.) You need a good aerobic base to successfully run a marathon. Additionally, perhaps his tempo runs are not the correct pace to train just under threshold. The fact that his legs were getting heavier and heavier make me think I’m on the right track. From what he said, I also suspect he’s a quad dominant runner. Perhaps some specific training to teach him to engage his glutes (medius, in particular) when his foot’s on the ground, and his abs when his foot’s in the air. Right now, he’s probably reaching with the striding foot instead of having good hip extension (when the trailing foot’s behind him). Then, when he takes up triathlon for his 60th birthday, he’ll run great off the bike! (Only partially kidding.)

    • Serious???

      • Yes. Perhaps your definition of “bonking” is a little different from mine. Paula Newby-Frasier bonked in Ironman Hawaii 1995. Having heavy legs and not being able to maintain your pace is not bonking, in my books. Was that what you meant?

        • That said, I have finally actually read his last paragraph about his “carb loading” and went to that webpage. I can’t say I’m a proponent of “carb loading” but am leaning towards trying to teach my body to metabolize stored fat (which takes more energy to metabolize) instead of always using available carbs for fuel (which take less energy to metabolize), but I’ve only been working on it for about three months and it’s a work in progress and the jury’s still out (in my particular case).

          Regardless, during the race, he only took in 500 calories over 3 3/4 hours (so 133 calories/hour) and he weighs 17 km more than I do? I think he short-changed himself on nutrition during the race. It is something that needs to be addressed on long runs during training: practice what you’re going to do during your race, consume the products you’re going to use during your race, determine what quantity you need, determine whether or not your stomach can tolerate that amount, etc.

          That said, a PB by 12 minutes!? SMOKIN’….

          • I use a heart rate monitor for pacing too. It’s led to drastic improvement and much more enjoyable running. In other words, I run slow to run fast.

          • A quad dominant runner? Aren’t we all this?? Keeping your feet “underneath” your body, and having a quick cadence, I understand.

  36. Shelly Browne says:

    Congrats to you on your PR Michael! Excellent job.

    I’m by no means an expert or even a fast runner. Is it possible that it could be something really simple? From reading what Michael actually said in his email, I think he probably didn’t account for running hills with a painful calf muscle. I know for a fact that at after mile 19 that course gets hilly and stays that way until about mile 25.5.

    Along with that — yes, it was cold and windy that day and I don’t know much fluids especially electrolytes that Michael took in but sometimes we (me included) don’t hydrate at much when it’s cold because they’re not sweating as much.

    I think his carbs and calories for that day were probably fine for him and I’m hoping he knows this because he did some testing before the race.

  37. I’m certainly no expert but I’ll take a whack at this. I base my answer on my own experiences.
    The weather, in my opinion, shouldn’t have been a factor. Running a marathon with temps in the 40s sounds perfect to me. And I’m not concerned he missed his final long run. Not ideal but certainly not a deal breaker either. The same happened to me before my last ultra and I still managed a 40 minute PR for a 50 miler. We are not so fragile.
    Progressive negative splits over marathon distance or longer can pose a challenge. I snagged my current marathon PR using pretty much just that. I went out easy for the first half and then increased the pace on the back end. I was able to knock out progressive negative splits in 8 of the final 10 miles. However, I regularly use a fast finish in my long runs. There is no mention of Michael doing that in training. That could possibly be an issue.
    I enjoy running ultras. Fueling is paramount. 500 calories over that time frame? Not gonna work. In those conditions and at that race I imagine Michael was burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 800+ calories per hour. For runs over 3 hours I plan to consume 250-300 calories per hour from the start. In addition, I eat about 100-150 calories just before I start. No fuel in the 3 hours before the start would concern me. For my marathon PR I ate a full breakfast about 2.5 hours before, about 200 calories more an hour later and finally 120 calories less than 30 minutes before the start. When I begin to feel the wheels coming off it can be difficult to continue fueling and hydrating properly.
    Something I drilled into my own head before my last ultra was “It’s an eating and drinking contest with a little running mixed in for fun.” I knew to bust a huge PR would require the energy to cover the distance at the pace I had set before me. Considering how and where he “bonked” in the race, I gotta go with fueling as the issue.
    Michael, much respect for battling though the low point and crushing your PR.


  38. Bill Weber says:

    I really feel Michael had not done enough long runs in his training. I would personally recommend 3 Long runs of at least 20 Miles with 1 being no longer than 21. I am also a firm believer in a second long run during the week ranging from 13-16 Miles. Really helps to build the endurance.

  39. I think the errors were in the pacing. He went out too fast and then went faster. That is easy to do with the excitement of the race. It is also a plan for disaster. I learned this the hard way when I ran a PR for a half marathon during the first half of a marathon. The last two miles were a killer!

    I have found that I need to hold back for the first five miles. I try to run a pace that is about 10 seconds slower than what I want to average. The excitement of the race still tends to have me running faster than that but that is what I try to start with. After that you are settled into the race. If you have trained for a specific pace I would still be running slightly slower than the goal pace. At mile 10 I would start running the goal pace. After the half way point I try to run a little faster each mile. I have run six marathons and other than one have always run negative splits.

    Regarding the long training runs, my longest training run leading up to a marathon has been 12 miles. I really don’t think the super long runs are necessary. Mileage is necessary but I do not feel the long runs are an absolute necessity. The pace of the training miles are more important to me. What was the pace of the training runs? FYI – my PR is 2:50. When training for that race I tried to make my “hard” runs at a 6:00 minute or lower pace.

  40. Some interesting comments.

    Although I’d agree that nutrition, missing a long run and some general aspects of his training may have had a negative impact on his performance on the day, there seems to be little in the e-mail to suggest that any one of these factors would be the direct cause of a ‘bonk’.

    To me the wind is the most significant factor. By 15-20, I’m assuming Michael is referring to 15-20 mph, which is a significant wind. If he was in 3:40 shape then he was very likely not going to be able to achieve that in windy conditions. Over such a long race one can often hit early splits despite working harder than expected into a wind, but that extra work comes back to haunt you very quickly in the latter stages. In this case, combined with a pacing strategy that was possibly a little slow early and required a significant increase in pace towards the business end, the wind would have required more effort in the early miles to hold the set splits.

    If I was to have been advising Michael I would either have looked at adjusting the goals for the race to allow for the not-insignificant wind, or, if the BQ was of primary importance, suggested using the event as a training day and rescheduling the BQ attempt two weeks later at another marathon.

  41. congrats on doing a marathon, its always a big achievement especially getting PBs.
    it could be any number of things, or combinations of sevaral.Its never that easy to pin point what went wrong. I can only give you my experience of 20 yrs. of running which gave me a 2:30 marathon.
    Background build up do you have as a marathon runners, weeks, months or years, take a lot of conditioning work to be on your feet for 3-4 hrs. had you peaked at the wrong time..Too many lead up races, not tapered enough, sapped the legs?
    body dehydrated even if wet or cold still need to drink regularly, sleep well days or weeks before? do you have a good running style or one that creates problems later in the race?
    As i say these are things that go around in my head because the same things could have happened to me. i missed my target by 5 minutes. Marathon can be a bit hit and miss race, some days we feel good others we don’t. Be honest try to elimate the potential problem and go for it again.

  42. Missing the long run and picking up the pace early were his downfall. I did t see much mention of taking in water or carbs either. Did he do much goal marathon pace work?

  43. Michael, I started running when I was 53. Now 5 years later, I have BQed twice and expect to BQ and PR this year. I think there are a few things that need top be considered here.

    First, a 12 minute PR after what was likely a gradual improvement over 7 Marathons in 5 years, as well as multiple Triathlons is definitely huge! Remember that as we get better and better, and out times improve, it becomes more difficult to shave off the minutes as we near our fitness peak, while at the same time fighting against the decline that happens at an accelerated rate for us old guys. Two 18 mile and two 19 mile runs over what was likely a 4 to 6 week period is not exactly a lightweight effort.

    Second, as much as we try to ignore its effect, environment is always a factor. 40 degree weather to me is ideal at the start, but also means that the first few warm up miles are important. Being in cold temps definitely taxes the system as it tries to thermo-regulate. More importantly, it burns more calories (the measure of HEAT energy) which sucks stored carbs quite a bit more rapidly, especially at the first as the body fights the effects of the cold. This does result in less energy stores past mile 20ish as may have been demonstrated by Michael’s “Heavy legs” from mile 24 on. I am sure that Michael had his fluids and fuels dialed in from all of his previous training runs, but a change in any environmental factor requires a change in the fluid and fuel plan as well. We don’t think of it when it is really cold, but consider if the temperature had been really warm, say 80 degrees instead of 40. Would Michael not have hydrated a bit more aggressively? Same holds true for extreme cold. Perhaps more carbs needed to be loaded on board to compensate for the increased loss as a result of the environmental issues.

    Now, consider the effect of 15 to 20 mile winds AND rain. Mentally and physically these environmental components cannot help but draw from Michael’s energy, focus, drive and overall well-being. Even elite runners experience diminished performance when all of these factors are applied. Also, a 15 to 20 mile head or even a heading (as apposed to tailing) cross wind is going to slow any runner’s pace by anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds per mile, depending on the training level of the runner, and direction and force of the wind. Slick roads also often have at very least a slight effect on pace.

    Bottom line is: We can train for, plan for, and hope for really awesome PR times, but when Mother Nature deals harsh, unplanned for cards, we should be willing to adjust or expectations and be proud that at the end of the day we delivered our Best in spite of the hand we were dealt. Think about all of the 100 to 120 mile per week Elite Olympians who dropped out of London Marathon because it just wasn’t happening for them that day. and these were the Best of the Best.

    Remember, after all of your EXTENSIVE training and GREAT COACHING, it all comes down to 3 things – race day strategy, Fluid and Fuels management, and the environment. And to some extend where your head is that day. The morning of the London Olympics Marathon, Ryan Hall was asked what the best advice he had been given in preparation for the day’s race. My recollection is that he said simply “Ryan, get out of your head”. His Hamstring was tight, he got into his head, and by mile 11 he dropped out of the race rather than finish poorly. This was the OLYMPICS and he was an Olympian!

    So, I say, Michael, Celebrate your 12 minute PR, do more hills, give yourself at least a few more weeks to build base and your “Sharpening Phase”, learn to adjust your fluids and fuel plan according to race day environmental influences, and if your next planned Marathon will likely involve strong winds, do more hill workouts.

    Awesome job!

  44. Really interesting post, Jason. I enjoy that you shared the training and it was really interesting to read everyone’s comments.

    Perhaps I missed someone mentioning more on this, but I think your email to Mike was spot on. Too often, I think runners start marathon training without the proper background to actually achieve their goal. You did a stellar job getting him as prepared as he could be. But, perhaps Mike should have planned a marathon further out from his start date. Starting a long run at only 10 miles and only having 13 weeks was bound to disappoint. No amount of good nutrition and great pacing can make up for lack of training time.

    My advice, and you obviously agree, is for Mike to plan his yearly schedule better. For example, if he wants to try and BQ for 2014 he should start planning to train for an early fall race and make sure he gives himself 16-20 weeks. He might benefit from working with you long-term and having you design a good post-marathon schedule and then a proper build-up.

    Thanks for sharing, Jason!


  1. […] might remember earlier this year when I asked for your coaching help with Michael. Over 50 of you replied and offered suggestions on why he bonked the Houston Marathon. They ranged […]