Lining up just before starting gun goes off is a moment of extreme tension. Months of training and focus have brought you to the precipice of race day. In a few minutes, your body and mind will be put to the test. You are ready to go, but there’s just one problem: every fiber in your being is ready to race, but you actually need to be thinking about pace. On the surface it’s just one letter, yet knowing the difference between the two can make — or break — your race experience.
Pre-Race Euphoria & Your Taper
Coming into the start of the race is a really unique moment. You are finally rested after weeks of training, and you are itching to really run. You are mentally very focused, as other distractions quickly fade to the background. There is a ton of energy around you; the crowd of athletes is clearly excited and it’s hard to not feel their infectious enthusiasm.
While you might have been worried all year about a potential injury, this pre-race window is technically the most dangerous time for you. In a few minutes of poor pacing, it is possible to remove any chance for a strong finish and a great race.
This is why it pays to have a race plan in place long before race day, so your job is simply checking off a list instead of trying to conjure up a performance. Enjoy the moment, soak up the excess energy for later in the day when you’ll need it…but don’t let it dictate how you race.
“The marathon is twenty miles of hope and six miles of reality.” ~ Cam Brown, Professional Triathlete
Mental vs Physical Halfway
Anyone who has ever done a marathon will tell you that the miles get harder the longer the race goes on. Mile five is harder than mile one, and mile twenty is actually exponentially harder than mile ten. Let’s not even talk about mile twenty-five. This isn’t even taking elevation or terrain into account; we are talking strictly time!
Truth be told, racing a marathon will help you learn that mile 13.1 is actually not the halfway point on race day. In fact, most runners still feel phenomenally strong and focused at the technical midpoint of the race. By mile fifteen fatigue starts to accumulate for even the most seasoned runner. By mile twenty the gig is up and you have some serious work to do to get to the finish line, regardless of how hard you have been running up to this point.
TIP #1 — Envision half way being the mile twenty marker. Train to get to mile 20, but mentally prepare for what it will take to get from there to the finish line.
A well-run marathon means not slowing down over the final six miles.
Redefining Racing in the Context of a Marathon
Given that the race gets exponentially more difficult as time passes, it’s in your best interest to create conditions where you are mentally and physically ready to deal with the final finishing miles.
The best way to do this is not, contrary to popular opinion, to start fast and put the extra time into a “bank” for when you ultimately end up slowing down. This strategy encourages you to be aggressive at the time when you are most likely not able to make informed decisions about your pacing. Running hard, blowing up and hanging on to the finish isn’t a strategy…it’s damage control.
The optimal way is to start the race in such a way that you can take care of all the important things before the hammer falls. You should be able to eat and drink sufficiently; you should be somewhat relaxed, and you should be finding your natural pace instead of forcing one on your body.
Most importantly, you need to be putting significant mental resources towards examining how your body is handling the demands of race day. Your race will be defined by your ability to handle the nuances that temperature changes, nutrition requirements, equipment selection and many other factors have placed upon you.
26.2 Miles = Six + Fourteen + Six Point Two
Start Smart to Finish Strong
Despite what you might think, the ability to run a solid final six miles isn’t determined in training. It’s all about execution.
I would rather bet on someone with 90% fitness who is 100% ready to execute than someone who feels invincible thanks to their training. The fitter athlete is less likely to respect the demands of the race and more likely to choose the wrong path when it comes to decision making time.
So how does one properly pace a marathon? I humbly suggest you keep it as simple as this: Six + Fourteen + Six Point Two
The First Six Miles
Your goal here is to keep the pace down; settling into your race. This is effectively your warm up for the race itself. Do yourself a favor and run approximately ten (10) seconds slower per mile than your target pace.
The Middle Fourteen Miles
This is the meat of race day, where you settle into your steady pace and work to get to the true halfway point of your race. You are eating and drinking like a champ. If you are doing things well, you will run these miles at approximately five (5) seconds faster per mile than goal race pace. This will enable you to “earn back” the time you “gave up” at the start of the race. By the time you hit mile twenty you will be right back on schedule.
The Final Six Point Two Miles
This is it, the part that you have prepared for — the actual race. Everything else was a formality; it’s now time to start thinking about what it means to you to finish. Why thinking? Because there is precious little left physically to determine your outcome. If it all goes according to plan, you’ll be able to hang on to the finish. The goal here is that your personal finish line comes just a few steps beyond what the evil event organizers have decided is truly twenty-six point two miles.
A great race is less the culmination of incredible fitness as it is the intersection of good fitness and excellent execution. I hope this helps you in your next big race. If you have other experiences or thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments below!