Why NOT to run a marathon this fall

I love the marathon. The preparation for racing this distance is a rigorous test of mind, body and spirit. It requires discipline and strategy, and enduring the training eases and clears my mind to tackle the non-running challenges life presents.  But as I found myself finishing up Vermont City Marathon at the end of May, just six weeks after Boston, and immediately planning a training schedule for a  fall marathon, I began to wonder if I was getting carried away. And in the long run, if I was hurting my long-term running goals.

Just about the time these doubts surfaced, I got the July/August issue of Running Times in the mail and read the provocatively titled piece by Jonathan Beverly, “The Marathon: A Race Too Far? Is it time to get over the marathon?” My instinct upon reading the title was to say, “heck, no, who’s this crazy anti-marathon guy anyway?”  But as I read on, I found myself agreeing with many of the points he made, especially as they related to my own running.

Basically, Beverly isn’t dissing the marathon, or suggesting people shouldn’t run them for the joy of simply finishing them, or anything like that. He’s saying that for someone interested in racing a marathon for a specific time, and who has done three or four times without making too much improvement, and who doesn’t have much more time to commit to training than he had the last time around, there’s another option. Take that 45-to-55 miles a week you were going to use to train to run a marathon at about the same level you ran the last one at, and apply it to training for a 10K instead. This could bring much bigger results.  Why be a survival or mid-pack marathoner two, three or more times a year on 55-miles-a-week training, when you might become a competitive, or at least a further-toward-the-front-of-the-pack, 5K runner? During the past couple of years while I’ve focused on learning to run marathons, my 5K PR has only improved by a few seconds. That’s been bothering me… I think I could run faster than that, but marathon training precludes the kind of speed work that would allow me to test that.

How can I improve my marathon times?

And that’s where I found myself as I tried to pick a fall marathon. My last three marathon times, all run within 12 months of each other, were Bay State 3:13:20, Boston 3:12:49, and Vermont City 3:13:06.  That’s about what running peak mileage of 55 miles a week gets me.  Maybe I can get a bit faster without increasing that mileage, but to really make a big jump, like running a sub 3:00:00 at some point, I’ve got to really improve my turnover efficiency on the speed side, run more miles during the week, and lose some weight.

Ernesto with kids

Three of the reasons I'd rather not try taking my mileage from 55 miles a week peak to 75+ this year...

This summer/fall is not a good one for going beyond 55-mile weeks.  I’ve got family, including three awesome, very young children who I want to take fishing and hiking and read to and play with and teach, and lots and lots of work, and frankly, other things I care about doing in the bits and pieces of precious free time that are left.  So while one mad and masochistic part of me would love to take my mileage up to 75+ a week and see what that gets me, and thinks I could do it by adding miles at night while everyone is in bed, it’s just not going to happen this year.  A man’s got to sleep once in a while. (At least this guy does. I know some who manage 75 miles a week, work, family and more amazingly well, seemingly because they can get by on about three hours of sleep a night. Not me.)

Focus on speed and efficiency

So ruling out adding more miles to this summer/fall’s running schedule leaves speed and weight. I’ve concluded spending a season dedicating 45-55 miles a week to workouts designed to build speed over shorter race distances, and aiming at a fast half marathon and 10K for the fall, will bring a bigger gain in the marathon I run next year than I would see if I trudged through another marathon this fall. As for the weight, we’ll see. I’d like to drop another 10-15 pounds over the next year or so, and I’ll give it a shot, but there’s a balance to find in all things, and if I’ve got to let discipline slip once in a while, then a fine meal and a good drink is a sweet pleasure to do it for … And as a non-elite runner, the pleasure of being able to eat a slightly decadent meal once in a while without feeling guilty is one of the perks of a 2,000 calorie Saturday morning long run. I’m not sure dropping a few pounds is worth giving that perk up for.

So that’s my plan. Curious to see how it pans out. Half-marathon, 5K and 10K race times this summer and fall and next spring’s marathon time will either bear out my thinking or prove it wrong.  Interested to hear from others who split years into seasons to train for very different distances, and how that’s worked out…

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