Monday, May 2, 2016

6 Smart Things I Did to Set a Marathon PR

So my second marathon is in the books.

And despite some really awful conditions on Sunday at the New Jersey Marathon, I set a huge PR. Sure, you would expect to see some improvement the second time around -- that's the case for just about anything in life, right? But I went from 4:18:32 to 3:54:47 -- that's 23:45 faster!

So what did I do differently?

If you've been keeping up with my marathon-related posts the last few months, you know that I got much more serious about my training regimen and my taper. I'm not going to re-hash all that here. What I want to talk about is race day and the couple of days beforehand.


On Friday, I more or less spent the entire day on the couch. I didn't do work, and I limited my chores. (My lawn looks like a jungle, by the way.) 

On Saturday, we had some errands to run, but while we were out, I realized I wasn't giving my legs proper rest. So I waited in the car while my wife (bless her) ran into the grocery store to buy the last-minute items we needed.

Later Saturday, at the race expo, we took one spin around the various booths. Tried a few samples of products, but we didn't hang around long.

Me and my friend Dan on expo day (courtesy Christine McDevitt)
And even when we arrived at the start area (Monmouth Park) on Sunday morning, I sat on the floor for as long as I could before heading to the corrals.

Every last bit of rest you can put into your legs helps when you're running 26.2. Conserving all those little expenditures of energy can really add up.


I've been talking for a while about carb loading -- because I'd been doing it for close to three weeks. The last few days before a race are key, though. I had rice with almost every meal. I consumed very little fat, as I wanted to save those calories for carbs. And dinner both Friday and Saturday was pasta.

The morning of the race, I ate a bagel with strawberry preserves (not cream cheese or butter), and a low-fat concoction of whey protein, water, chocolate syrup and iced coffee. My glycogen tanks were as full as they possibly could be.


I'd read extensively on pacing strategy for a marathon. It's a much different beast than a half. In my recent half-marathon, I set a strong PR with some serious negative splits (running faster in the second half than the first). Ask 100 experts, and 99 of them will tell you that the key to a fast time is to start slowly and finish fast. But one article I read blew that idea out of the water. The thing is, most people just can't hold a faster pace in the waning miles of a full marathon -- it's just too far, and it just takes too much out of you.

That jibed with my experience the first time around -- not just me, but the people who finished in around the same time I did. Your body can store only so much glycogen, and your slow-twitch muscles can hold out only so long. 

OK, so I didn't want to go out too fast and risk an early bonk, but I figured my best bet for a solid time was to acknowledge that I'd probably slow down at the end no matter what. So I decided to start at a reasonable pace instead of holding way back. That paid off, as I did the first half in 1:56:11, and the second half in 1:58:36.

I will bet that had I gone out slower in the first half, my second half wouldn't have been any better. 


As I wrote a few weeks ago, I felt that one of my downfalls in 2014 was the lack of a good fueling strategy. Even a fully carb-loaded runner won't have enough glycogen for 26.2 miles. There's only one way to fight this: Ingest some carbs during the race. (I know that some people advocate "fat adaptation," but it's a difficult strategy that requires months of preparation, and research is mixed whether burning fat for energy actually leads to optimal performance.)

I decided that I would take a GU energy gel roughly every five miles, around aid stations so I could drink some water to help with digestion. GU delivers 100 calories of a carefully engineered balance of glucose and fructose, which ensures that your body will absorb as much of it as possible. And between GUs, I determined that I'd grab Gatorade at rest stations to get a little more carbs and some electrolytes.

I didn't stick exactly to my plan -- I started on the GUs a little earlier than 5 miles, and wound up ingesting one more than I'd planned on. But the overall strategy worked: Take the carbs before you feel like you need them, because by that time, it's too late.


It's impossible to execute a race plan exactly as you've drawn it up. There are just too many variables. As I mentioned, I started on my GU regimen a bit early, and I kept taking them every 4.5 miles instead of 5 -- which helped me keep my energy up. 

It was wet and miserable all day long. (courtesy Jacqueline Richter)
Another area where I needed to be flexible was in my gear. The temperature was around 50 at the start and pretty much stayed there all day. The wind was strong enough to make it feel a little cooler. And there was the rain. So I started out with my rain jacket, gloves and a water-wicking baseball cap. By mile 3 or so, I realized the rain jacket was going to be too hot, and leaving it unzipped would be really annoying. So when I reached my group of supporters for the first time, I dropped the jacket and gloves with them. I also left my wool ski cap, which I had just in case but determined I wouldn't need.

And though I'd planned to stay with the 4-hour pace group for a while, I realized early on that the two pacers with that group weren't running even enough splits, and so I decided to get out ahead of them and not look back. By mile 3, one of my main goals was not to see those people again -- and I didn't.

The Little Things
  • For races where it might be cold, I buy a used coat at Goodwill and wear it to the starting line, and then drop it right before the start. I also wore an old pair of pajama pants. A woman standing near me had a tank top on and was freezing. Since I had my rain jacket on, I gave her my old coat, and I think that helped her.
  • I always carry a hand towel to wipe away sweat -- those freebie golf towels you get a pep rallies and the such. But I figured I'd have sweat plus rain to wipe away, so I carried two of them. Let me tell you how nice it was to pull out a dry towel around mile 20.
  • I always walk through aid stations (when I get a drink), but I took one extra walk break. The New Jersey Marathon course goes through the old, abandoned Asbury Park Casino. I made the most of the respite from the rain to take my hat off and shake it out, really towel myself off, and get myself organized for the final six miles. I'm certain that this helped me focus in the home stretch.
  • When I hit a rough patch, I used mental tricks. I kept thinking of all the people who sponsored my run and how I couldn't let them down. I paced myself behind someone for 3 or 4 miles. I tried talking to people to get my mind off my fatigue. It all helps a little, and lot of little things add up.

It All Added Up to a Great Finish

Check out that awesome support team! (courtesy Christine McDevitt)
I can't claim any responsibility for the great support group I had all over the course, but seeing my wife, my family and one of my good friends between miles 24 and 25 was one helluva pick-me-up. I thought I might have to stop to walk some. But instead, I actually had a kick for about the last mile and a third. I was freakin' moving! I don't recall seeing a 40k timing mat, so I don't know my split in that last 2k, but I'd bet I was around my half-marathon pace. And there is no better feeling in a marathon than passing people in the home stretch and barreling through the finish line. It was awesome!

Have a story of your own to share? Sound off in the comments below, on Twitter or on Facebook


  1. Good information. I'm happy for your success.

  2. Good information. I'm happy for your success.

  3. Good information. Very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Congratulations on your amazing PR! I agree with a lot of this advice. I too can't seem to negative split a marathon. It's a very hard thing to do. I also think knowing your course is important. Go hard on the easier parts and know that you'll slow down on the hills.