Thoughts on Running a Sub-3 hour Marathon

For a long time I had the goal of running a marathon under 3 hours, but it never really happened. Last month (April 2015), I ran a 2:56 and I can honestly say it was the easiest and most enjoyable marathon I have ever run. This was a very good improvement over my previous PR which was 3:12. What follows is a list of things that I did to crack three hours. I am writing this so that others might benefit from something here, but also because I just would like to have a record of my experience and try to summarize some of the main factors that I think helped me improve as a runner.

The Base Phase (5-8 months before race)

  • I picked a target race well in advance. I scoured the internet and ended up selecting Nagano Marathon in Japan: a race with a good reputation and nice PR conditions from what others have reported.
  • With a long time to prepare, I set up a base phase that I devised from a pre-marathon training base plan that I found online (and which has subsequently gone offline so I can’t easily share). Basically, I ran lots of slow miles (8-10 min miles) with a gradual increase and a few step back weeks. My weekly mileage over 12 weeks was 30, 45, 45, 45, 45, 35, 50, 50, 50, 40. Long runs were in the 13-15 mile range. I threw in some easy pick ups on Tuesdays. To hardcore runners, this might not seem like much, but it was the first time in my life that I’ve run regular slow and easy miles consistently.
  • I realized that during my last marathon in 2013 I was, well, heavy in marathon running terms. I mean at 6’2″ and 180 lbs nobody would have said that I was fat. The ridiculous thing is that after over a decade of running I didn’t realize how much difference a few pounds would make. If you are interested check here for an estimated calculation to see how weight and other variables can affect marathon performance. When I saw this I was blown away by the fact that I could lose 20 pounds, still be well within a healthy BMI range, and probably take off 15 minutes from my marathon time.
  • So to that end, I started eating lots of salads and smoothies! And cut back on the beer and wine. Down from 3-4 drinks a day to more like 3-4 drinks a week or sometimes none at all. I bought a Withings Scale (a nice investment if you are a sucker for visualization) and watched my weight drop. I did core exercises (kettlebells and yoga mostly); this combined with the slow running and a mostly plant based diet made a huge difference and I lost 9-10 kgs over 10 months. I ended up weighing 72 kgs (158 lbs) on race day and felt stronger and better than I ever have. Hard to believe I lost 20 lbs.
  • I got into the habit of doing short gentle yoga sessions in the evening before bed. Around 20 min. each time. There is a ton of stuff out there but I particularly liked Jason Crandell’s Yoga for Morning, Noon, and Night.

The Training Phase (18 weeks before race)

  • Having completed several weeks at around 50 miles, I was confident that I could step into some real training. I settled on a plan from the book Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas. I chose the 18 week plan that tops out at 70 miles per week. I had never run that much before so I was daunted to say the least.
  • Let me just say that the Pfitz 18/70  is a pretty tough schedule for us competitive recreational runner types who have a full time job. But if you are serious about cracking 3 hours for the marathon or you want to achieve some other relatively hard über-goal, get the book, read it, and seriously consider following that plan. I think the 18/55 (which I have also done) would also do the trick, but the 18/70 will seal the deal if you have a base to build on.
  • Following the advice that I had read in running forums, I ran the recovery runs very slow which I think was a key to remaining strong and avoiding injury.
  • Pfitzinger recommends that you run Medium Long Runs and Long Runs at 10-20% slower than marathon pace (7:21 to 7:40 for a 2:59 marathon pace). Running these long runs at a faster pace made a huge difference for me. I did not find this pace for the first half of the schedule but eased into it. By the end, I was running my long runs around 7:20.
  • I gained confidence as I started getting PRs. The ‘tune-up’ races were really satisfying (ran a 38 min 10k and a 1:25 half).
  • I hadn’t really used my HR monitor in the past. But this time around I put in more effort into figuring out how to use my HR monitor effectively. I found that the formula 180-my age gave me a rough approximation of my threshold (or one of them). I am not a slavish follower of the Maffetone method, but I did keep 138 BMP in mind (I’m 42 years old, BTW) and most of the time I would slow down if I saw my heart rate in the 140s. On long run days and during workouts I didn’t pay as much attention to HR and let it creep up.

I felt really good on marathon day. Halfway split was 1:29:30 and I felt fantastic. I then started to turn it up a notch around mile 13 or 14 (I’ll have to write more later about Nagano Marathon because it was incredibly interesting). Instead of hitting a wall at mile 20, I felt strong and began clicking off 6:30 – 6:40 min miles. This is fast for me. I must have passed hundreds of runners in the last 10k, or so it seemed. My last 10 km was just a few seconds over 40 minutes, which not that long ago was my PR 10k time! My only regret is that I didn’t go out faster; but the fact that I have that regret tells me that I probably ran a smart race. I was in uncharted territory and so I played it safe. I finished with the feeling that I was up against the limit, dizzy and my legs on fire. I was pretty wasted, but then maybe if I’d paced a more more evenly I might have been able to squeeze out a few more minutes…?

Better get back to work! If you are interested, feel free to follow my training on Strava: