The Marathon Simulator Run – 5 Weeks Out, Great Predictor of Race Time?

I ran my marathon simulator run Sunday – five weeks out from Boston – and have to say it went pretty darn well, which gives me some renewed hope for cracking the three hour mark at Boston on April 15.

So what’s the marathon simulator? It’s a long run with 16 miles (or 16.4 if you want to be picky and achieve an actual “metric marathon” of 26.2 kilometers) at your proposed marathon race pace. It’s run five weeks out from the marathon, at the end of a normal week of your peak mileage running. No taper in advance. The idea is that if you can run this workout before your taper, you can run the marathon at the same pace after the taper. Based on my experience (eight marathons to date), it works.

I first read about the simulator back in 2008 when I was training for my first marathon. (I wrote about it here.) The concept made sense and I’ve made it part of my marathon build up ever since. When I’ve hit the paces in the simulator, I’ve hit them in the marathon. When I haven’t, one of two things has happened. I’ve either dialed back the goal a bit, as I did before Cape Cod in fall 2011, when my race pace runs told me I was in 3:05:00 shape not 3:00:00 shape.  Or I’ve gone for it and bonked, as I did at Baystate in fall  2012. I aimed my marathon simulator run five weeks out at a 6:50 pace and ended up bagging it 11 or 12 miles into the pace miles because I could already feel myself red-lining – it was an end-of-race effort way too early. But I told myself I was still recovering from hard racing at Reach the Beach and went for the sub-3 at Baystate anyway. Ran strong, at pace, for 20 miles, then bonked. Last 6.2 were a trudge. Ended up at 3:04:05 – a PB but not the race I’d wanted. The simulator knew.

Here’s a recent article on the simulator, which as it turns out is a run used by the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. And the original one I read all those years back in Runner’s World.

This Sunday’s run was my strongest simulator yet. We got back from an overnight at Kris’ mom’s down in MA on a beautiful, sunny, 40F, breezy Sunday afternoon. I wore shorts and long sleeve compression shirt, light gloves for the first few miles. Prerun nutrition: pizza and cheesecake the night before for proper fat-loading. Then a light breakfast, eggs. Mid-morning squash soup. Cereal bar on the ride home. And just before the run, a slice of bread wrapped around some peanut butter and banana. I took two Gu packets with caffeine during the run, one at 45 minutes in, the next at 90 minutes in. Drank 8 ounces water during the run. 2% chocolate milk with coffee mixed in directly after the run.

I’d been nervous about how this was going to as I’d been feeling physically stressed and tired. I never made it to the mileage the Pfitzinger plan called for – high 60s maxing at 70. I barely squeaked in 60 mile weeks, and even to manage that meant ugly late night training runs, once work was done and the kids were in bed. Life’s busy these days. But nevertheless, I got the 14 mile Wednesday nighters done, and I think it was these that  helped this  run feel  controlled throughout.

I started with two warmup miles, (7:48 and 7:33) before I jumped into the 16 marathon pace miles (6:46, 6:44, 6:45, 6:46, 6:48, 6:46, 6:49, 6:44, 6:47, 6:47, 6:53, 6:46, 6:45, 6:47, 6:43, 6:43).

I really had to focus on holding pace starting about mile 11. It was hard work after that, but I never felt like I hit my lactate threshold or that my heart rate got too high, or even that I was breathing too hard. I never hit a spot where I didn’t think I could have sped up if I needed to, and I finished with the two fastest miles of the run. And if 6:51 is what I need to crack three hours, then the that roughly 6:45 range ought to provide some margin of safety relative to crowds, imperfect tangents and the vagaries of the day.

All of which is to say, that if prior experience proves out, and if its not 90 degrees nor a 40 mile an hour headwind, Boston ought to be a pretty decent race for me this year. I’ve got three weeks left to train and two to taper. And maybe I’ll get that sub-three hour time. Either way, having the simulator done and behind me is a confidence booster – and a relief.