Boston 2013 Recap – Course Strategy and Training Notes

While none of the sorrow over the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon is, or should be, forgotten (I wrote about it here that week), many of those who ran the race have begun to also allow themselves to reflect on the race itself, the running, and the happy (or difficult) day that preceded the attack. People are reclaiming pieces of the day; the iconic moments that each year make a marathon such an important part of the running calendar.

Many, many runners have added Boston 2014 to their calendars – out of a spirit of defiance and solidarity.

For marathoners, achieving the iconic Boston-qualifying time (BQ) is often a key goal in their development. Once that’s achieved? For some, the next benchmark is cracking three hours.

With those folks in mind, I’d like to share the course strategy I ran, as it helped me achieve my goal of getting in under three hours, along with some notes from the training cycle.

Running the Boston Course, Strategy

The Boston course is a net downhill – my Garmin showed 479 feet of elevation gain and 926 feet of elevation loss during the run. What makes the course difficult is that the first 16 miles are pretty much all downhill, which encourages rash behavior. Then between mile 16 and 21 you climb four hills, the last one being the storied Heartbreak Hill. These climbs, after the 16 overly-speedy downhill miles, can leave your legs in pretty poor shape. If you overrun the first 16 miles, 22 to 26.2 will be quite unpleasant.

I encountered that unpleasant experience first hand in 2010. I was maybe 3:10-3:12 fit, but  I got sucked into the easiness of the gentle downhills and ran the first half on what – if memory serves – was about a 3:08:XX finish pace. Thinking I could “put time in the bank.” Of course I hit the hills and crumpled, struggled and wheezed up them and then tried to speed up on the far side of Heartbreak Hill, only to have my quads seize up. The last five miles were a terrible, exhausted slog, completely bonked, a white haze of fatigue. I could hardly keep my head up straight on my neck by the end. I finished in 3:12:46, and maybe that’s not much slower than I would have run it if I’d paced better, but the final five miles needn’t have been so utterly miserable.

So, I was hoping not to do that again this year. After nine marathons, including this one, I have concluded that you (or at least I) can’t put time in the bank.

What I aimed to do this year at Boston was put energy and muscle in the bank. I hoped I was 2:59:XX fit. All my training benchmarks suggested I could run 6:45 pace for a marathon distance. I knew that if my goal pace was 6:50 and I was training by my Garmin, I’d better aim for 6:45, since you can’t run the tangents perfectly (or at all) in a race as crowded at Boston.

So at the start, rather than saying to myself, “hey, I can run 6:45 pace, but that means I should run the downhills even faster, say 6:35,” as I would on a course where the hills were more normally spaced and the first 16 miles weren’t on downhill, I concentrated on not running any faster than my goal pace for the whole first 16.

It felt easy though 10. Then work from 10-16, but not too hard, concentration was required at that point, but not grim determination.

And then, because I’d gone easy (by sticking to goal pace) on the first 16, the hills were hard work, but actually fun. I didn’t try and maintain the 6:45 pace up the hills, but tried not to go any slower than 7:00 and reclaimed as much as I could on the downhill sides. The first hill at 17 was a relief; my legs were happy for the variety. I wove in and out of the crowd and passed a bunch of folks. And I was able to speed up a good deal going down the other side. Even by Heartbreak, I slowed but still felt good, kept passing folks, and recovered quickly at the crest. Here are the splits from those miles.

17 – 6:52
18 – 6:53
19 – 6:41
20 – 6:52
21 – 7:00

The most critical number, though, was the split for mile 22 – which was 6:37. With that mile done, and the fastest one of the whole race, and only 4.2 to go, I began to feel confident I could hang in at a decent clip. Overall, I averaged about 6:43 pace for the last five miles. After mile 26, the last .4 miles (per the Garmin anyhow, and here’s where you have to expect you’re going to overrun the distance in a big, crowded race), was at 6:26 pace.

So there’s my suggestion on strategy for the Boston Marathon course, based on my admittedly limited course experience, but a positive outcome three years later and the second time around: official time 2:58:43, avg. pace: 6:49.

k 10k 15k 20k Half 25k 30k 35k 40k
0:21:09 0:42:18 1:03:26 1:24:33 1:29:10 1:45:39 2:07:07 2:28:30 2:49:32
Finish: Pace Proj. Time Offl. Time Overall Gender Division
0:06:49 2:58:43 2:58:43 1845 1734 248

The Training Plan

The plan was from Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, and I’ve followed it for (I think) 7 out of the 9 marathons I’ve run. It’s enabled me to make consistent gains over the seasons, and this year make a more than 5 minute jump from a 3:04:05 PR at the fast-and-flat Baystate Marathon course October 2012. I highly recommend picking it up. Great advice throughout and the plans grow with you as you advance. My copy is battered, dogeared, annotated and well, well read. Sadly, not autographed.

Takeaways from the training cycle:

  • The Pfitizinger plan breaks the training into four mesocycles of 3 to 6 weeks each focused on different elements of prep – endurance, lactate threshold training, race prep, and taper.
  • Each mesocycle contains a race-pace long run, which builds throughout the program to an 18 miler with 15 (I do 16) at race pace five weeks from the marathon. I’ve found that if I can hit my paces in the race pace run, I can hit those paces in the marathon. (I wrote about it here.)
  • The plan includes only a modest amount of speedwork – frequent strides and then once a week either a long tempo run or later in the plan long 5K pace intervals.
  • A key workout combo is a 10 mile or so Tuesday run with 5-6 miles at tempo pace, and then a 14 mile Wednesday long run. I think this was one of the most potent parts of the plan for me.
  •  The Pfitzinger plan offers different versions for up to 55 miles per week, 55-70 miles per week, and 70 plus miles per week. I ran the 55-70 plan, but my schedule was so crazy with work and family obligations I had to modify, cutting some of the recovery run doubles out, and staying at between 55-62 miles a week most weeks.
  • For scheduling reasons, I had to do my Wednesday night long runs (about 14 miles), a. at night, and b. on the treadmill because I had to be listening for the baby monitor. I actually ended up running about 50% of my mileage on the treadmill – and I think this helped immensely. This was the least tweaky/injured I’ve been in any training cycle, despite being the highest mileage season yet. I think all those mentally grueling nighttime 14 milers were much less physically grueling than they would have been on icy, snow packed sidewalks.
  • The treadmill also let me control my hill workouts. For most of my 14 milers, I ran a warmup few miles then started alternating flat treadmill 1/2 miles with 1/2 mile climbs for 10 miles or so. I think this helped.
  • My last race pace long run, 5 weeks out, was bang on – 18 miles with 16 at around 6:45, with the last two of the 16 faster than that. When this works, whatever that race pace is, I have been able to hit in the race. When I blow up, I know I have to modify the goal.

So there you have it. If you’re considering training at a similar mileage level or similar race goals and have questions I didn’t address here, feel free to drop me note. See you on the roads soon!