In the late sixties, each episode of the popular TV show Mission Impossible began with a scene where the protagonist listened to a tape recording of a mysterious figure stating, “Your mission Jim, should you decide to accept it…” Then the intrepid hero was given an assignment that seemed impossible to accomplish. Recently, I’ve felt like I just listened to my own version of that recording: “Your mission Allen, should you decide to accept it, is to run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston.” Oh shit!
I’ve spent the last year and a half trying to get ready for Patriot’s Day 2017, this Monday. But my fitness level is nowhere near where I’d hoped it would be. I fear the slogfest and the pain that awaits me in Newton. I have a seat reserved on the pain train.
So now the question becomes, “What can I realistically shoot for? What time can I run?”
Today I’d like to dedicate the blog to a marathon topic that seems rarely discussed: How can one realistically determine their marathon goal?
I think a common mistake that a lot of marathoners, both rookies and veterans, make is to set unrealistic goals. The first thing any would-be marathoner needs to do when setting their goal is to be honest with themselves. Make an honest assessment of your current fitness level. This is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes runners so desperately want to achieve a time goal that they will convince themselves that they are in fact currently capable of that time goal even when all indicators say otherwise.
I have coined a phrase for this phenomenon: His eyes were faster than his legs. So many runners enter the marathon thinking, “I know I can run [insert unrealistic goal here].” And with minimal analysis, they start the race running a pace that they cannot sustain for the duration. From the 1:29 half marathoner who is sure he can break 3:00 in the full, to the girl who thinks she should be able to knock a half hour off her PR to qualify for Boston, these folks are unfortunately too common and in the latter stages of their marathon, they often pay dearly for their Icarus-like hubris and lack of analytical preparation.
But you won’t do that because I’m here to help! I made the mistakes and paid the price so you won’t have to! Here are some tips for realistically setting expectations.
Utilize Race Calculators/Predictors
Ah, the beauty of modern technology! Once upon a time, a common way to predict your marathon goal time was to try using some anecdotal formula like “Double your half marathon time and add ten.” While this approach is better than a SWAG (“scientific” wild-ass guess), today you can utilize any number of internet pace calculators and race predictors that should be significantly more accurate.
For example, if you go to McMillan Running and click on the calculator button, you can plug in a recent race time and McMillan will calculate predicted times for you at other distances. Say you recently ran a 20:00 5K. Plug that into the McMillan race calculator, and it will give you a predicted marathon time of 3:14:53.
There are a few things you as a twenty-minute 5K guy need to understand before you jump willy-nilly into a marathon expecting to break 3:15.
- McMillan is assuming you’ve done adequate marathon training. If you ran a 20:00 5K on zero training and therefore expect to run sub-3:15 in a marathon with zero training, you are in for a very long and very painful surprise.
- You potentially may need to make some tweaks/adjustments to predicted times based on what kind of runner you are. For me, I am typically better at shorter, faster races so that when I plug in a recent 5K time into a predictor like McMillan, I know I will have to add time to their marathon prediction in order to be more accurate. My friend Nathan is the exact opposite – he’s better at long-distance, endurance stuff, so that when he plugs in his 5K time, he knows he can subtract time from McMillan’s prediction.
Often you can determine a good goal time based on recent workouts. The most well known of these is the Yasso 800s workout.
Famous runner-turned-Runner’s-World-celebrity Bart Yasso stumbled upon this years ago while training for a marathon. He discovered that when he did a workout of ten 800M repeats, with equal recovery time, he could average his 800M times and that time (in minutes) would equate to what time (in hours) he could run the marathon. So for example, if the average of his 800M repeats equaled 3 minutes, he could realistically expect to be able to run a 3-hour marathon.
This formula works pretty well for most runners, but it’s not perfect. Again, you need to know what kind of a runner you are. For example, I have to alter the formula a little – I apply what I call the Linz Addendum.
One day when I was complaining to my friend Aaron Linz (former president of the Charlotte Running Club) how the Yasso formula didn’t work for me, he explained to me how it didn’t work for him either but he learned how to adjust it. He merely adds 10 to his average time. So for example, if Aaron were to run his last 10 x 800M workout and the time averaged out to 2:35, he would just add 10 to give him a more accurate predicted marathon time of 2:45.
Following the Linz Addendum turned out to be a spot-on predictor for me as well. If you’re more of a speed person, you may find that the Linz Addendum works for you. If you’re better at the longer stuff, you may find that subtracting ten is the magic formula for you.
There are other effective workout predictors. Here are a few at the aforementioned McMillan site. Just remember to factor in the kind of runner you are when assessing your goal.
Compare/Contrast Prior Performances
For you experienced marathoners out there, examining past races and training cycles can be a good way to set your current goal.
For example, if you’ve followed the exact same training plan that you used for a marathon a year ago, and you’ve basically hit the same splits, run the same paces in workouts, and have run the same time in a tune-up half marathon at the same point in the training cycle you did a year ago, you can probably safely set your marathon goal for the same time you ran last year (assuming the courses and weather conditions are roughly the same).
Obviously, if you’re feeling fitter than the year before, and all your times are faster this year, you should be able to shoot for a faster time than last year.
Confer With Experts
Even with these new tools at your disposal, you may be missing a few variables that you hadn’t considered. Reach out to some experts to help (this is always a good idea in any endeavor, not just running).
You’ve crunched your numbers. You have a goal in mind. Run it by a coach and/or an experienced marathoner (especially one who’s run the race you’re preparing for). They probably know something you don’t. “Ah, I see your prediction. I think you may need to add two minutes because there is a section of trail in this race that typically adds about 2 minutes to everyone’s time.” Or, “You can subtract two minutes from your prediction. This race has a long downhill stretch and everyone usually runs like two minutes faster than anticipated.”
All Bets Are Off
Let’s assume you’ve applied all the above prediction strategies and everything indicates you’re ready to shoot for a huge PR (Personal Record, for those of you not familiar with the acronym). Let’s say you are all set to finally break the 3-hour barrier. Then you check the weather report.
The meteorological experts call for the hottest day on record on race day (not uncommon in this day and age, despite all the rhetoric those climate-change naysayers are spouting). Take it from me as I have learned this lesson the very, very hard way – if you’re feeling warm and you’re sweating before the starting gun even fires – as painful as it may be to do, you may need to let go of that PR dream on this day. I know, I know, as athletes, we’ve all heard “No pain, no gain” ad nauseam. But pushing too hard in an attempt to fight weather conditions, especially heat, but also things like strong wind, heavy precipitation, etc., can make for a very bad race experience.
For example, the night before the 2012 Boston Marathon, one of the hottest on record, my friend Nathan typed away at his laptop. Being the intelligent guy that he is, Nathan was researching to determine how best to reassess his race-day goals given the forecasted high temperatures. I, on the other hand, demonstrated what a big dummy I was by ignoring the forecast and planning on running my pre-planned goal pace regardless of conditions. The results? Nathan probably ran the best possible time he could under the circumstances. Me? I ran the first few miles at my original goal pace and literally almost died.
Moral of the story: You may have crunched the numbers and formulated the perfect goal time for ideal conditions. But don’t forget to account for other factors, like weather and course. Obviously, your goal time for a race with a crazy hilly course should not be the same as your goal for a flat marathon.
So Allen, what’s your goal?
Let’s use all the info above to try and figure out my realistic goal for this year’s Boston marathon.
- Race calculators: I jumped into a 10K (the Brain Tumor 10K here in Charlotte) last weekend and my official time was 48:14. But the course seemed a bit long as my Garmin registered the distance at 6.4. Analyzing my data, I crossed the 10K point right at 47:00, so I plugged that into McMillan which gave me a predicted marathon time of 3:40:31.
- Workout predictors: Leading up to Boston, coming off of a couple of significant injuries, I’ve been focused on building up mileage to be able to cover the distance, and my workouts have mostly been limited to tempo runs. So no good predictor-type workouts.
- Compare/contrast prior performances: Looking at the training cycle and my current fitness level, I can compare my fitness to that of prior races. I’m certainly not nearly as fit as I was for some of my better races: like my 3:22 2015 Boston. But I’m very confident that I’m fitter than I was for the 2009 Bob Potts marathon, where I ran a 3:57. I’m probably about the same fitness level as I was for the Richmond marathon where I ran a 3:34, but I’m also eight years older.
- Confer with experts: I’ve talked to several veteran marathoners and a theme has emerged: “Maybe you should run this one for fun. Don’t worry about time, just go out there and enjoy yourself.”
I’m both glad and, truth be told, a bit annoyed that the forecast looks pretty close to perfect for Patriot’s Day 2017 (low of 42, high of 54, partly cloudly). Glad because you always want perfect weather on race day. Annoyed because if I had gotten that weather on my other Boston days, when I was fitter, I could have possibly PR’d.
So knowing my current fitness level, if I’m being truly honest with myself, trying to qualify for next year’s race is probably a bad idea (3:30 is my BQ time, which with the current rules means I’d probably need to run somewhere around 3:27). Laura and I have talked about trying to run together and just run , but she’s battling through an injury and may not be able to run. Looking at McMillan’s prediction of 3:40 and knowing that I’m typically slower, a realistic goal for me is probably somewhere in the 3:45 – 3:50 range. On Monday April 17, feel free to follow me here and see how accurate that prediction is. But also note that I may take the experts’ advice and stop at Boston College and have a beer or two with the students.
I hope these tips help someone out there – please let me know if you find them helpful! I’ll be seeing some of you in Hopkinton – say hello!