The Wall

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The Ultimate Boston Marathon Overview Part 3: A Racing Strategy

17 April

The Boston Marathon is unique for many reasons, but beguiling for just a few. Year after year, thousands of insanely fit runners descend on Hopkinton, MA prepared to do battle for 26.2 miles. And year after year, a large percentage of these runners are turned away long before they reach the finish line, reduced to simply “bringing it in” after being battered by Boston once again.

In this post we’ll cover a hybrid model of pacing, one that merges the Marathon Nation approach of conservative early miles with a model that accounts for the terrain of Boston.  Our goal is to set you up with a pacing plan that will help you make the most of your fitness and help you have the day you have earned!

Here are the previous articles on Marathon pacing from the MN Archives:

Step One: Understanding Race Execution

Race execution is the understanding that, while each of us may have our own strategy on race day, there is a generally accepted way of running that will create the conditions for your success. It’s a framework, a starting point. Whether or not you achieve your goals is then a function of your personal strategy, your fitness, how you handle race day challenges, etc. As experienced marathoners can attest, there’s a right way and a wrong way to run on marathon race day. In other words, the fittest person isn’t automatically the fastest.

The Marathon Nation Race Approach

Here’s how we break it down inside Marathon Nation:

Start Smart (Miles 0 to 5) — Given your goal pace of, say 9:00/miles, you purposely start of slower by about 15 seconds per mile. Then you start to bring the pace down such that by mile five, you are running at or just under your goal pace. It sounds crazy, for sure, but it means you aren’t running too hard, or wasting energy trying to weave around the competition. You are just in your zone, slowly building up your pace to where you’ll want it to sit all day.

Run to the Line (Miles 6 to 20) — The bulk of your race is spent running just under our goal pace. For our 9:00 runner, this means miles in the 8:55 range. The purpose here is to be consistent but to slowly chip away at the timing surplus that our early conservative pacing created. By the time we reach the end of this section of our day, you should be right on target for your goal time but in a much better place.

The Line (Aka the “wall”) is the part of your race day where your body begins to push back. In general this happens between miles 18 and 22 on race day, depending on the course, your pacing, your fitness, etc. Of course, most runners go out fast putting time in to “the bank” for when they slow down — I am here to tell you there is no such bank, and that time you saved will mostly likely be nowhere near sufficient to staunch the bleeding at the end of your day.

Until you hit the “line” you aren’t racing, you are running. You ignore the other runners and do your best to flatten out the course through smart pacing. Nutritionally you are fueling in anticipation of the last six miles.

Race to the Finish (Miles 21 to Finish)— The last six miles on race day are were dreams are made (or broken). Inside Marathon Nation we don’t dread the end of the race; it’s where our day begins. If you have paced yourself properly, you’ll just be starting to pass other runners as everyone around you is slowing down. This is not only a judicious application of your fitness, it’s a powerful mental strategy that helps you stay focused just as your body is trying to check out.

In summary, the basic Marathon Nation Pacing approach is:

  • Give away 15 seconds per mile for first five miles (+ 75 seconds).
  • Gain back 5 seconds per mile from miles 6 through 20 (- 75 seconds).
  • Last 10k is on pace.

Step Two: The Boston Marathon Course

Boston’s course is unique for several reasons. First, it’s a point-to-point race which means organized travel out to the start early in the day. There’s no “have a bagel in your hotel room and jog to the start a mere 20 minutes away” option here!

Second, it’s a point-to-point course that is relatively straight in nature. As a result, a headwind (or tailwind) can impact your entire race, not just one segment.

Third, it’s a net downhill course. Despite the famed hills of Newton, there are many other marathons with more challenging terrain. Anyone who lives close enough to train on the course regularly will tell you the hills aren’t that bad — but on race day, after 15 miles of downhill running, these hills grow in stature and can really put a hurt on you.

Fourth, there are significant temperature swings by year, and also within the race. Some of the April affairs have been close to freezing, others have been so hot as to cause heat exhaustion — that’s New England for you. As the locals say, “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes…”  Even more challenging, however, is how the temperatures will change over the day, from a chilly morning wait in Hopkinton to a cool start, to a warm welcome at halfway to slowly dropping temperatures the closer you get the city. Ask any finisher and they’ll tell you they remember being freezing after they hit the finish line.

Please Note: This pacing model is what MN Member William Jenks used to put up a PR performance in the 2010 Boston Marathon. You can download and listen to the full interview from the web here.

Step Three: The Hybrid Boston Approach

Considering the above challenges, and remembering that Execution Trumps Fitness on race day, a new approach is required to create the conditions for success at Boston. You can absolutely find resources online that will help you break down different courses into per mile elevation changes, but that is almost too granular to be able to manage when running. Here’s how William (from the interview above), formed his plan.

First, you have your goal time for race day. This is something you have trained for and, to some extent, are pretty confident you can make happen on race day. In William’s case, he was looking to run 7:30/mile.

Second, you can break Boston down into four distinct sections. Reviewing the elevation profile again, you can see how it’s possible to break the race down:

  • 1-5 – Downhill
  • 5-16 — Rolling/Flat
  • 16-21 — Newton Hills
  • Last 5 Miles — Downhill to Flat

Third, you can overlay your goal time onto the terrain, taking it into account:

Average Goal Pace = 7:30 per mile

  • 1-5 – Downhill  = Faster, so about 10 seconds faster per mile or 7:20 pace.
  • 5-16 — Rolling/Flat = Flat, so about 7:30 pace.
  • 16-21 — Newton Hills = Hilly, so about 10 seconds slower per mile or 7:40 pace.
  • Last 5 — Downhill to Flat = Flat, so about 7:30 pace .

The fourth and final step is to apply the Marathon Nation conservative approach to this Boston-adjusted model of pacing:

Average Goal Pace = 7:30 per mile

  • 1-5 – Downhill  — 7:20 pace, but add the 15 seconds to be conservative, so target pace of 7:35/mile.
  • 5-16 — Rolling/Flat — 7:30 pace, but know we are earning early miles back, so target pace of 7:25/mile.
  • 16-21 — Newton Hills — 7:40 pace, and know it’s going to be tough, so dial pace back by 15 to target pace of 7:40/mile.
  • Last 5 — Downhill to Flat. — 7:30 pace, which is exactly what we want to hold to finish strong relative to the competition, target pace is 7:30/mile.

The Results

While no one method is guaranteed, this strategy takes a large part of what make Boston hard and puts you in control of your day. In his case, William followed this approach for Boston in 2010 and nailed a PR finish time of 3:16:40. Starting with a qualification seed of 12,074, he finished with a final race day rank of approximately 3,900.

Training and pre-race prep aside, having a plan in place to handle the terrain of your next big race can mean the difference between being in the hunt or just having a nice long run. Make sure your pre-race planning takes your goals into account…and good luck!


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