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The Ultimate Marine Corps Marathon Pacing Plan

19 October

Marine Corps Marathon Elevation Chart

The Marine Corps Marathon is the fall highlight for thousands of runners every year. The timing is perfect for conditions, the course is predominantly flat and the on-course motivation is quite high. Despite this, thousands of runners fail to meet their pre-race goals…and we want to fix that!

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 the Marine Corps Marathon.  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:

Looking for more detailed information on the Marine Corps Marathon: 

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 six miles.
  • Gain back 5 seconds per mile from miles 6 through 20.
  • Last 10k is on pace.

Step Two: The Marine Corps Marathon Course

This course is unique for several reasons. First, it’s got some early hills & crowding which really messes with your pacing plan.

Second, it’s a loop course which means that you get a higher % of spectators and you will know what the course will be like — especially for all the return trips!

Third, it’s got a loop of Haines Point, a flat and open peninsula opposite the Lincoln Memorial that is totally expose to winds off of the Potomac.  Anyone who lives close enough to train on the course regularly will tell you the winds here can be as bad as the hills of Newton can affect your Boston performance.

Fourth, there is the challenging last mile…okay it’s really a slight uphill over the last three miles…but the last mile is the hardest for sure. If you have any cracks in your fitness at this point, your goal time will  most certainly fall by the wayside. And let’s not talk about the crowding at the finish line and just how cold it can get there!! 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 Pacing 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 the Marine Corps Marathon. 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.

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

  • 1 = Flat
  • 1 to 2.5 = Uphill // 2.5 to 4 = Downhill
  • 4 to 6.5 = Flat
  • 6.5 to 8 = Uphill // 8 to 10 = Downhill
  • 10 to 21 = Flat
  • 21 to 26.2 = Flat to Slightly Up to Up

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

Average Goal Pace = 7:30 per mile

  • Downhills  = Faster, so about 10 seconds faster per mile or 7:20 pace for these sections.
  • Uphills = Slower, so about 10 seconds slower per mile or 7:40 pace.

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

Average Goal Pace = 7:30 per mile

  • 1 = Flat = 7:30 pace plus 15 seconds to be conservative, or 7:45 pace.
  • 1 to 2.5 = Uphill = 7:40 pace plus 15 seconds, or 7:55 pace.
  • 2.5 to 4 = Downhill = 7:20 pace plus 15 seconds, or 7:35 pace.
  • 4 to 6.5 = Flat = 7:30 pace plus 15 seconds to be conservative, or 7:45 pace.
  • 6.5 to 8 = Uphill = 7:40 pace.
  • 8 to 10 = Downhill = 7:20 pace.
  • 10 to 21 = Flat = 7:30 pace, but now we are earning early miles back, so target pace of 7:25/mile.
  • 21 to 26.2 = Flat to Slightly Up to Up = 7:30 pace to best effort at the end.

But That’s Too Complicated…So…

While proper pace is good, trying to track the above could really make you crazy. So let’s keep it easier:

  • Miles 1-6.5 are meant to be 15 seconds slower per mile, adding 10 seconds if going up…taking 10 off if going down.
  • Miles 6.5 to 21 are meant to be slightly faster by 5 seconds per mile, but still add 10 seconds per mile if going up, or take 10 seconds away if going down (if there’s a sick head or tailwind, treat it like a hill!)
  • Miles 21 to finish will have you on point to make your goal finishing time…you will need to really kick it in here and do your best to stick to your pace regardless of what’s hurting!

The Results

While no one method is guaranteed, this strategy takes a large part of what makes Marine Corps hard and puts you in control of your day. 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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