In many of the marathon race reports I’ve read recently, experienced runners have admitted to what they’ve called a ‘rookie mistake’. Their assumption seems to be that although they’ve slipped up, they really shouldn’t have, because they’ve ignored basic advice that we’ve all heard many times before. These runners are owning up to getting their pacing wrong, or as we’ve all referred to it, ‘going out too hard’. It’s rare that we hear anyone complain after a marathon that they really should have set off faster. Although I fully realise that it’s unlikely I’ll make the Olympics at this stage, one thing I’ve always been good at is pacing. In the vast majority of my longer races, from the marathon up to 100 miles, I will usually record a negative split. Although I get many things wrong (ask my wife), I usually get the pacing right and so at the risk of making an arse of myself I thought I’d put down some thoughts on how I manage to pace longer races.
To be honest, I’ve never really thought too much about how pacing works. I know that what I do just seems to work and I’ve never had to articulate the detail. I don’t usually plan my race with great precision and then relax back into the knowledge that it’ll be all right on the night. Now that I’m trying to figure out how my approach differs from some others I’ve come up with a few basic ideas that I hope will make some sense. In the first instance, I don’t think that getting your marathon race pace wrong is really a rookie mistake. Although its obvious that plenty of first-time marathoners do set off too fast, so many experienced marathon runners do exactly the same that it’s just not fair to tag the newbies with all the blame. If you’ve ever wondered how many people slow dramatically in the second half of a long race just ask anyone who has managed to run that same race at an even pace. My own experience has been that I will pass huge numbers of unhappy runners in the later stages of almost every marathon or ultra that I take part in simply by maintaining the same pace. If I can manage to increase my pace in the final few miles, the effect is even more dramatic, something akin to having the ‘turbo-boosters’ on whilst others are running through deep and painful treacle.
So! What’s the deal? How could people improve their chances of maintaining an even pace throughout a long race? First and foremost, I think it’s crucial to have a realistic time target in mind before you go to the starting line. The key here is that it absolutely has to be realistic. Perhaps realistic and conservative are synonymous here. Personally, I’d love to run a 2:30 marathon, but without the assistance of a skateboard and a following wind I realise that it’s just not likely to happen. There is an additional problem of course in that I believe there may be some obscure IAAF rule disallowing skateboard use. This doesn’t mean that I want to sell myself short. I might settle on a target-time of 3:00 and hope for better. However, even if I do harbour secret hopes of a faster run, I’ll still pace for the ‘realistic’ time. I’d probably just about be able to run the first few miles of a marathon at 2:30 pace, but then I’d be in hospital before the leaders passed halfway.
My main concern in pacing is always to run at a pace that I feel sure I can maintain ’til the end. This is different to the pace that I’d like to be going at or the pace that I hope I can maintain. It’s a pace that I’m confident I can keep going. If, as the race develops, it becomes clear that I’ve been running conservatively, it might be possible for me to increase the pace late in the day but this is only ever possible for me if I’ve run at the planned/realistic/conservative pace in the earlier miles. It’s obviously a conservative approach, but one rooted in pragmatism rather than unfounded optimism. Another analogy would be to imagine that I start the race with a certain amount of fuel in my metaphorical tank. The faster I run the quicker I will consume fuel. In such a scenario, I try to eek out the fuel so that I’m balancing speed with fuel consumption so that the tank runs dry ten paces after I cross the line. To a large extent I know that this is a learnt skill, but many other people have learnt these lessons and still their optimism will triumph over reality.
The secret, if there is one, is looking for constant feedback from yourself and adjusting what you’re doing to reflect the state of play as you perceive it. If I feel I’m digging myself in too deep, I back off. If I feel like I have the opportunity I’ll throw caution to the wind in the later stages, but only then.
When it works it looks really clever and when it doesn’t the worst that happens is that you finish like a train wondering just how faster you’ll go the next time and that sure beats walking through water stations at mile twenty two.
Thanks to Al DiMicco for the inspiration.