There is a very fine line between running to your potential and walking the last several miles of a marathon. I’d like to provide a few pacing concepts that will help you plan and get in the right frame of mind so that you’re the one passing everyone in the last few miles.
Know Your Fitness
I notice many runners have a vague, but not crystal clear, idea of what sort of time they are capable of running in the marathon. Predicting your marathon finish time is tricky and several factors have to be considered. If you've recently run a short distance race, pacing calculators can be a great place to start, but they assume you've been putting in a certain level of training.
Here are the "big rocks" that I look at when trying to predict one's finishing window of time.
How much mileage have you been running? More is generally better for a marathoner.
How many long, long runs have you done? To be well prepared, I'd like to see a 22, a couple of 20's, and at least a few 18's.
Have you raced at all? Races provide an accurate assessment of your fitness so that we can hone in on a finishing time.
Have you done any long runs at your goal pace? These are highly valuable runs that build your confidence and specifically train you to run a marathon at that pace.
When someone is missing these key ingredients, I become less confident that they will run up to their potential as predicted by a pace calculator. I also find that the folks who have these pieces in place will have a better sense of what they are capable of on race day – because they're better prepared!
So, if you haven't nailed those four pieces in training, I'd advise a more conservative race plan where you target a time slower than a race calculator would predict.
Patience and Discipline
People 'hit the wall' in a marathon for a few reasons — but, without a doubt, the most common issue is poor pacing.
I think most of us know that we shouldn't run too fast in the early miles, but it seems like almost everybody does. What gives?
Well, as in many other areas of life, knowing and doing can be two completely different things.
The problem arises when on race morning you find yourself amped up, fresh from your taper, and full of motivation - especially from the atmosphere. In those early miles your pace feels so easy. In fact, you're running 10 seconds faster than planned and it feels like you're jogging. But then, you hit the wall in Mile 23 and there goes your race. This is due largely in part to the lack of patience you demonstrated in Mile 3.
Be disciplined enough to stick to your race plan. Don't get swept up in everyone else's insanity. Put the blinders on and run your pace. You can pass 'em later!
Read Your Body's Signals
Do a "systems check" continually throughout the race.
Am I as relaxed as possible? Gritting teeth, squinting eyes, shrugging the shoulders, clenching fists, and grimacing facial expressions have no place in your run.
How's my breathing sound and feel? In a marathon it should never be audible. (Ok, maybe in the last mile or two).
Finally, just keep asking yourself, "Is this sustainable?" How simple is that? That little voice in your head knows. LISTEN to it!
Putting It Together
First, do your best in figuring out exactly what sort of shape you're in so you can settle on an appropriate goal pace. If you're not sure, reach out for help.
Then — and I can't overemphasize this enough — be patient and disciplined. This is quite possibly more difficult than actually running the marathon.
As you run, be aware of how you're feeling and whether your pace is truly sustainable, but also be sure to appreciate just how lucky and privileged you are to be out there.
There's a reason why many people say it often takes a couple of tries to master the marathon. You've got to put in months (years, if you think about it) of quality training, avoid sickness and injury so that you arrive to the starting line healthy, and then actually execute a smart race. It's not easy!
Hopefully by keeping some of these concepts in mind, you'll be the one passing everyone as you surge towards the finish!
John Goldthorp is the founder of Fix Your Run, a specialized fitness coaching business in Philadelphia that helps runners become faster and less prone to injury.