Thursday, November 5, 2009

On Pace

“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” — Emerson

“To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first.” — Shakespeare

“When the race gets hard to run, it means you just can't take the pace.” — Bob Marley

"i have no idea what my #marathon pace is--or should be? how do you figure it out?" — Woman on Twitter

I’m so predictable. I didn’t used to be. But the more I run, the better those online calculators—you know, the ones where you plug in a 10K or half-marathon time and it spits out a marathon prediction—the better they are at pegging my pace. This is a good thing, since how fast to go in a 26.2 mile race can be terrifyingly difficult to determine. The dire scenarios if you get it wrong are obvious: go out too fast and you risk blowing up and staggering to the finish; go out too slow and you finish strong but with the soul-devouring sense that you failed to leave it all on the course. The former possibility is universally applicable. The latter assumes that racing to your potential is important to you, which may not always be the case. The woman who does the New York Times’ Well blog was pleased as punch after training for months and then turning in a six-hour, 58-minute marathon. That’s 16 minutes per mile, a brisk walk for most people. Then again, it was her first marathon, and the standard-issue advice for newbies is not to concern yourself with pace, have fun, get through it, worry about how long it takes in your next race. Clearly Ms. 6:58 took that advice to heart.

In my first marathon, the Bizz Johnson, I desperately wanted to run under four hours. This was in 2004. I was 41 and had been doing triathlons for a while, but moreover still saw myself as the athlete I was as a kid, with unlimited, unknowable potential, and a fierce need to be well above average. You could say I’ve always been a bit of a fasthole, even if the person I most frequently looked down upon for being slow was me. In any case, then as now, simply finishing the race could not be the goal.

The Bizz hardly unfolded as planned. In my training, I had done a 15-mile run around two hours — eight minutes per mile. Mindful that 15 miles isn’t 26.2, it made sense to me to go a little slower than that in the marathon, so I decided to aim for an 8:30 pace, then see if I could hang on to the finish. On race day, a frightfully cold October morning at 5,000 feet elevation, on a course that rose gradually for the first 12 miles (a fact I, weirdly, hadn’t taken into consideration in my “planning”), I found myself running nine-minute miles. It was all I could manage. I hit the halfway mark at just under 1:57. Having never run farther than 17 miles, I was scared shitless that I’d slow down even more as the race wore on and then I’d have to live forever with having run a marathon in more than four hours. Could I just never talk about it and pretend it hadn’t happened? No, too many people knew I was doing the race. The results would be posted online. Fucking Internet.

A few things happened on my way to plus-four-marathon infamy, however: the course elevation declined by a steady 80 feet per mile over the last 14 miles; the sun shone bright and the temperature climbed from the mid-20s into the 40s, perfect for running; and I kept running. All this added up to a negative split and a finishing time of 3:49.

It was an unorthodox first-marathon success story, attributable as much to the nature of the course as anything else. It wasn’t great reserves of energy that allowed me to go faster late in the race. It was gravity. I was like a ball rolling down the hill. If the course had been flat, I’m sure I would have faded badly—which is what happened in all my subsequent marathons. Until Berlin, earlier this fall.

Going into Berlin, I knew, based on my workouts, that my fitness had improved since I’d run 3:18:54 in Boston in 2008. I had done a 20-miler in 2:28, a 7:24/mile pace, 12 seconds faster than at Boston. So immediately I was thinking of shooting for a 7:30/mile or faster at Berlin, for a total time under 3:17. Also, I had done more long running than ever in my Berlin training, which gave me confidence that my fitness late in the race—in that scary 20- to 26-mile zone—would likely be better.

You’d think that would have been enough to settle on a pace, but it wasn’t. I didn’t want to mess things up. I wanted to run the perfect race. I read my books and scoured the Internet for more insight. I ran Yasso 800s, which served to inspire and confuse me. Ripping off those 10 halves in under three minutes apiece suggested my goal of bettering my PR was well within reach, but left me confused as to how bold I should be on race day. Could I really run a marathon in close to three hours? I wasn’t buying that, and indeed most analysis of the Yasso formula says it tends to yield and an overly optimistic forecast.

The online predictors were less optimistic about my chances, but they still held out the prospect of a substantial PR reduction. I had done a half-marathon in 1:30:19 in April. Using an age-grading formula, that translated to a 3:07:54 marathon. An estimated-VO2 max formula said 3:08:12. Riegel (Runner’s World) was at 3:08:17. And Cameron 3:11:23.

All these formulas came with a caveat: “the assumption that you've done appropriate training for the distance,” as one of them put it. That makes sense. If you’ve never run more than 13.1 miles, a half-marathon time probably won’t say much about your capabilities at 26.2. I wasn’t sure if I’d met the criteria for “appropriate training,” but I knew that in the lead-up to Berlin I’d done more running, more focused running and more long runs than ever before. Based on that, I began to warm to the idea that I could make a go at 3:10. I had based my FIRST training on 3:10, but the idea there was simply to push myself. I didn’t know if I’d actually get to the point where I could confidently start a race aiming for that time.

Sometimes in the days before the race I would think about what had happened at Boston, how my 1:35:27 first half had devolved into a 1:43:25 second half, and I’d wonder if I really did have what it takes to maintain a 3:10 pace — 7:15/mile — for the duration. I’d think: Maybe I should aim for 3:15 (7:26/mile)? That would be safer. That would be prudent. But on race morning, at the starting line, with Ravel’s Bolero thumping over the PA system as welcome messages in a dozen or more languages were delivered to the 40,000 runners massed on the Strasse des 17 Juni, I felt absolutely calm. I had shifted my thinking to kilometers, since that’s how the course would be marked, and I was sure that 4:30/kilometer, 7:15/mile, was the way to go. I didn't know for sure if I would succeed. That's something you never know before a race. Hell, you race to find out. But I was sure that my pacing approach was solid, come what may.

My worst 5K split was only 49 seconds slower than my best. As I wrote in my race report, I began to fade a bit around 35 kilometers, but just a bit. Mostly I stayed steady from start to finish. This was a challenging pace, but a pace I could handle. It was a joyous, exhilarating run. I set out to run 3:10. I ran 3:09:54. I nailed the pace sweet spot. And my ability to do so was a function of my training. It all comes down to the training. If you are well-trained for the marathon — and by well-trained I don’t mean that you’ve followed an 18-week run-a-marathon program, but that you’ve been at it for years, built a base, raced a variety of distances and put in the long runs and the deep thought and, if this doesn't sound too weird, the love for the sport — that’s when you’ll become predictable. Wonderfully predictable.

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