It took a few attempts but Andrew McDonagh finally broke the 3 hour marathon barrier in Amsterdam last October. As an ordinary runner without the support of a club or coach he tended to learn the right way to do things by doing them wrong the first few times round! Read all about what did and didn’t work for him as he nailed that elusive target…
So you want to run a Sub 3 marathon? Well there is no mystery, just run 26.2 consecutive miles in or around 6:50 per mile (or 4:15 minutes per km) and there you go!
The trouble is that for the average runner that’s a pretty big ask. From what I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had people tend to agree that for a healthy male under 40 who stays injury free then a sub 3 is certainly possible but it’s not easy. You need to have done the hard work in training, you need to get the pacing right, the nutrition spot on and hope that the weather and course are favourable. Even the best trained runner can have an off day and the trouble with a marathon attempt is that if it goes wrong you can’t have another crack in a week!
So that’s why it is so important to learn as much as you can in advance, the more you know the better prepared you can be and the better your chances of success. So on that basis what did I do? What went right and what went wrong?
What worked in training:
- More miles. There is no escape from this, in my opinion. If you want to run fast you have to run long. Average weekly mileage in 2009 was high 40s but in the run up to this race my mileage was far higher, on weeks I trained properly I averaged in the high 50s at least with a couple of weeks in the 70s. Miles make champions!
- Long runs. I did 5 runs of 20miles or more. While I didn’t often push to Planned Marathon Pace (PMP) in my Long Slow Runs (LSRs) I did a couple of them as progression runs, for example starting at 8 min / miles for 5 miles, then 7:30′s for 5, then 7:00 for 5 then down again for the last five. Really tough session but it taught me how to run hard when my legs were tired.
- Running easy. Easy days were easy – 8 min miles weren’t unusual for standard runs and that kept my legs fresh for the hard sessions. There is a real tendency for people to try and be hero’s when they are aiming at a stretch target but don’t – recover when you need to recover and the faster sessions will be better quality and be of more use.
- Strides. When I tired during the race I concentrated on my form; stay upright, stay loose, maintain stride length & cadence. All stuff that was reinforced in weekly sessions of strides. When I found my pace dropping I focussed a bit on my form and I managed to speed up and feel better.
What worked in the race:
- Old skool Tech! I ran with my Garmin 405 but I disabled all of it’s fancy functions. No HRM. No Virtual Partner. No AutoLap. I basically used it as an over-priced stopwatch and every time I reached a km marker I manually lapped my watch. This meant that I had almost instant feedback on my pace and knew exactly where I was speedwise at every stage by distance raced rather than distance run. It also kept my focussed – every 4 minutes (or so) I was forced to look back at where I was and it stopped me drifting away into my own little world and losing a lot of time
- The racing line. Starting in pen B (just behind the elites) meant that I had very little congestion and I either ran on the blue line or hugged the curves all the way. Result was that the Garmin (when I checked at the end!) recorded 42.3x kms run rather than the more usual 42.6x or so. A few hundred metres here or there might not seem much to get excited about in the context of a marathon but 300m could take a minute or more to run so following the racing line makes sense and could be the difference between cracking 3:00 and not
- Confidence. I knew I had trained hard and had no doubt in my head I could run sub 3 this time out. Every other time it’s been a case of hoping, this time it was expected and that mental attitude showed in the pace. There is NO REAL DIFFERENCE between the effort of running 3:00:30 and in running 2:59:30. Sub 3 is an arbitrary line we draw, it’s not a real barrier, it’s an artificial one (albeit one I think you need to break to understand that)
- Run to your own steady pace. One other thing I really noticed this time… It’s natural in a big event to run with and pace off those around you. Between 25 and 35kms I ran rock solid consistent km splits (literally the 5k splits were identical to the second) and you would not believe the number of people I went past, almost all of them runners I recognised from my peer group in the earlier stages of the race. I was holding a steady rhythm but they were all slowing in little pockets of 2 and 3 runners. As you get tired it’s reassuring to be running with people you know set out at the same pace and with the same goal as you but holding station with a group might mean you are going backwards against the clock. You really do need to be wide awake and on your toes, especially in that dead zone between 22 and 32kms.
What didn’t work in training:
- Too many missed sessions. Holidays (2 missed weeks) and catching up on work after the holiday (another missed week) plus too many other sessions either lost or curtailed meant that I was always going to find my original target of sub 2:55 a push. Running 26 miles at 6:40 a mile is a big ask for me and hoping to do it off a patchy training cycle was optimistic. If you want to run fast you need to commit to it. Lesson learned? If you want to run the best time you are capable of then you need to structure your life around the plan or adjust your target to fit. I was able to compensate by adjusting my target but had I had tighter margins to work with I’d have been in trouble.
- Not enough fast running. Running easy was great for making sure I stayed injury free and fairly fresh in high mileage weeks. And I made most of my speed sessions but I did miss the two key PMP sessions (the 12 and 15 mile PMP runs). The longest PMP run I managed was 8 and it told. Likewise I had to bail on a couple of speed sessions for a whole range of reasons (a kids birthday party invading the track midway through one for example!). Sub 3 requires speed as well as stamina and that needs to be trained in and while I did enough speed work to get there I needed more to get to where I wanted. Lesson Learned? There are two key sessions in a marathon training week. First is the long run, second is the speed session. You want to run fast? Do them both.
What didn’t work on the day
- Gels. I normally run and race with isotonic gels but we had a box of regular gels left over from a sponsor after I helped crew an ultra event last year so I have been using them. In training they were fine but they didn’t work at all here – the intervals I wanted to take them at didn’t match with the water stations and I wasn’t able to drink enough water to dilute the gels so they ended up as a gloop in my guts. Not nice. Lesson learned? A rookie error really, always do on a long run what you’ll do in the race and do your research
- Toenails. Yes, toenails! I always trim my nails a week ahead of the race (in case I trim them too close it gives them time to grow out a bit) but this time I managed to leave a sharp edge that I hadn’t noticed in the shorter runs between then and the race. By 8 or 10 miles in it was rubbing and painful but thankfully it eased after a while. Lesson learned? No matter how smart you think you are something will always spring up and surprise you.
So there you go – that’s what got me there? Got me where? To a marathon of 2:58:15 and finishing with a silly great big grin on my face!
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