Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top 10 Lessons from My Twin Cities Marathon Experience

After every marathon I do, I spend a bit of time cogitating on my experience. What did I do differently that worked? What didn't I do that I should try next time? How did I feel leading up to the race and afterward? By thinking long and hard about these things and discussing them with my coach, I am able to better prepare for my next training cycle and race. I have found that it's best to treat each marathon as a learning opportunity so that, regardless of how you do in that particular race, at least you'll walk away with a lesson that you can apply to your future races.

Here is my list of lessons learned from the Twin Cities Marathon (TCM):
  1. Pump up the volume. My body responded really well to the increased volume in this training cycle. This is not really a surprise since I have gradually bumped up my mileage with each training cycle I have done for the last 5 years. My average weekly mileage for the 17 weeks leading up to the Belgrade Marathon was 75. My coach increased my average weekly mileage for Twin Cities to 80. I was able to do every workout, I never felt overly tired, I didn't get sick and I didn't get injured. So, I believe this bodes well for bumping up my mileage more for my next shot at a Trials qualifier. I do recognize that incremental increases in volume at this point in my development as a runner will yield lower and lower returns, but I have about 30 seconds to shave off of my marathon, so I'll take every increment I can get.
  2. Get your taper on. Last year, I requested that my coach adjust my taper to maintain a bit more volume in the 3 weeks leading up to race day. I did this to see whether or not it would make a difference in how I felt in those final weeks before the race. As I have stated before, the taper weeks leave my legs feeling like cheese puffs with lead filling. So, my taper changed from 86, 74, 57 miles in the 3 weeks leading up to the Marine Corps Marathon last year to 87, 80, 60 miles leading up to Belgrade. Not a huge change, but I felt it. I ended up with a bit less volume than was planned for Twin Cities due to the calf issue I had 3 weeks before the race with 84, 62, 64 miles the 3 weeks prior to the race. This actually may have been a blessing for me. The reduced volume left me feeling much more refreshed than I did before Belgrade. This leads me to think that lower volume while maintaining intensity may be the ticket for future training cycles.
  3. No racing the weekend before the race. This was a great suggestion from my coach and something that I will maintain in my program into the future. In the past, I have always run a short race (5k or 10k) within 10 days of my goal marathon race. The idea is that you're in super shape and can probably PR at the shorter distance as a result even though you've not been training for the shorter race. It serves to boost your confidence a bit if you run well, but it can also pummel you if you have a bad race. The problem is that, in general, your speed in a 5k may or may not correlate with how you perform at the marathon distance a week later. Not running a short race may have been another reason that my legs felt better, and I felt generally more rested on the days leading up to the race. If I want to run a fast 5k, I'll train for it. My focus is on running marathons for now, and I don't want to sacrifice my marathon training and racing for a fast shorter race.
  4. Carbs are my friend. Concentrating on increasing my carbohydrate intake for the 3 days leading up to the marathon was key. I have done this every training cycle while working with Nicole, my current coach. Until I started tracking my caloric intake and parceling my diet into bins for carbs, protein and fat, I had no idea what 70% of my daily calories from carbs looked like on my plate. The thing that wasn't clicking for me was that it was necessary to both increase carbs while simultaneously decreasing protein and fat intake so my consumption of these only added up to 30%. Since I generally stick to a pretty low fat diet, the protein has to take the hit which means little to no meat, peanut butter or cheese and definitely no sports drinks or bars with added protein for those three days before the race.
  5. Race in a pack. I learned this lesson back in 2005 when I ran CIM for the second time. I ran most of the race with the 3:20 pace group led by ultra-marathoner extraordinaire Tim Tweitmeyer. I stuck right on his caboose the whole way along with about 20 other upbeat and happy runners. While we can use physical equations to calculate the benefit of reduced wind resistance from drafting in cycling or running, there's a psychological and possibly a spiritual benefit that you get from running with a pack of runners with good energy. It's as if there's electricity in the air that propels you forward with the group. My experience at Twin Cities running with a small pack of women was entirely positive. We ran a steady pace, there was definitely a draft benefit, and there was that magical energy generated by everyone trying to achieve a common goal. This is a rare thing to experience in most races, so I recommend you savor it when you have the chance to race with a pack.
  6. Have a fabulous fueling strategy. My race day fueling strategy has become a routine, and I see no need to change it. About 2-3 hours prior to the race (if the race is at 7 or 8 a.m.), I eat one packet of oatmeal, a bagel or some bread with peanut butter and sometimes jelly, and drink my special SPORTea with a little bit of sugar. During the race, I take in 5 Roctane gu packets. That's right: 5. While it seems like a lot, it works. My intake schedule is now tried and true as well. I changed it after Marine Corps last year because I felt like I was running low on fuel at the end of my marathons and wanted to try a new plan. So, at my next race, I took my first gel early in the race (mile 2), then one gel every 5-6 miles with the last gel taken at mile 21-22. Taking 4 gels (one every 5 miles), like I had done previously, left me taking the last one at mile 20. My new plan gives me 100 more calories total plus the last shot later in the race to carry me through the last few miles. Also, I NEVER mix sports drinks and gel. My coach sent me an article once that described the insoluble mass of goober that forms in your belly when you mix these two substances and how it leads to major stomach distress. In fact, I remember watching Kara Goucher run the World Marathon Championships held in Berlin and the commentators said that she had a bottle full of Powerade (or something like that) with a shot of gu in it. You saw what happened to her: she threw up something like 6 times in the race. Maybe it was coincidental, but I remember wondering when the commentator pointed this out why in the world she would mix those two things.
  7. Don't trust heart rate. Maybe this one should read: don't spaz out like a monkey in the weeks leading up to the race because you all of a sudden start measuring your heart rate and it isn't in the range the books say it should be leading you to think that you are not trained to go out and run at your goal marathon pace. Enough said.
  8. Specificity of training is where it's at. If you tracked my training leading up to this race, I think you may have noticed that I didn't do much traditional speed work. My training was packed with long, goal-marathon-paced and half-marathon-paced workouts. I wasn't running 400s, 800s or even 1000m repeats at break-neck speed on a regular basis. It seems that the key for marathon training is to get your body used to burning fuel for the long haul. It will not do that automatically. I also had lots of hill work in my training including a couple of runs that had me mirroring what I would experience on the course at TCM--an uphill finish. Likewise, I do a lot of downhill running leading up to CIM to get my legs ready for the pounding of the downhills on that course. Train for the course you will run and you will give yourself a big advantage.
  9. Lose weight: run faster. As much as I would like to say that weight doesn't matter for a runner, it does. It simply takes less energy to move a 124-pound runner across 26 miles, especially up hills, than it takes to move a 128-pound runner along the same course. Is it a coincidence that I lost 5 pounds between my 2:55 marathon in Eugene and my 2:50 marathon at CIM AND I lost 4 pounds between that 2:50 CIM marathon and my 2:46 performance at Twin Cities? Maybe. If I had lost 4.5 lbs. would I have gone under 2:46? Of course it's not that simple, but I know that it helped. Most importantly, I lost weight without jeopardizing my health and it helped me get faster. For those of you who are already teetering on the low end of the BMI scale, this will not help you. For those of you with a little extra to love, you may find a few less cheeseburgers can help you get up that hill a wee bit faster.
  10. Feel the Love. Support and love from friends, family, fellow runners and random folks in Minnesota helped me succeed at TCM. I definitely put in all the work, but it would be foolish to think that what I accomplished was all on me. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the most successful people in the world, the outliers, rarely if ever achieve this success through just natural talent and hard work. Circumstance and timing matter immensely. I had ideal circumstances leading up to this race on a number of levels with support and patience from The Genius; friendship and support from my Early Girlies; a supportive and gifted coach; patience and support of my family (remember the RWI story?); support from my Impalas Racing Team and teammates; financial support from the race organizers and my team; understanding and flexibility on the part of my fine employer; and the constant positive energy and encouragement coming from my extended circle of friends and family scattered throughout the world. Yeah, I put in a little time running, but you guys added the yeast that helped me rise to the challenge and kick some marathoning arse.
Thanks to everyone for your support!


  1. Lots of very good information. I live in the Greater Sacramento Region and am training for CIM and follow up marathons. I will save and refer to this piece.

    I especially liked her fueling insights on the number of gels, and her insights on mixing gels and sports drinks during a run. I made this miximg mistake as recently as yesterday in a 22 mile long run.

    But all good tips.

  2. did not know that about combining gels and sports drinks. very useful and insightful post. i will also refer back to this for training and racing.

  3. Can you qualify for the Olympic Trials by running a certain speed in the Marine Marathon?

    Are there other marathons in the next year or two you can run in to qualify?

    Dave Crow

  4. Hi Dave,

    I can't qualify for the Olympic Trials at the Marine Corps Marathon nor would I try there since it is such a slow course. Twin Cities was the only opportunity in 2009 for women to qualify. Starting January 1, 2010, I can qualify at any USATF certified race (except extremely aided courses like Steamtown and St. George). I can keep trying all the way up until 30 days before the actual trials race which will probably be sometime in the Spring of 2012. Lots of time left.

  5. I am so glad I found your blog! (steered here by I'm in the final throes of training for Philly and the heartrate conundrum was seriously getting me down. Aside from drinking more water, which has helped, it's still a tad higher than usual, though I feel great and have been hitting the workouts spot on. I am so pleased to be told not to spaz out like a monkey. I needed that. Thanks.

  6. Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple