After running the California International Marathon (CIM) in 2022 finishing in 3:43:14 I set a goal to beat 3:35. On Sunday I achieved this goal by finishing the 40th running of CIM in an official chip time of 3:32:03.
On getting faster
My training rests on three foundational beliefs about what it takes to get faster.
- The only way to get better at running is to run consistently for many weeks and months in a row.
- The only way to run consistently is to avoid injury, sickness and burnout.
- The best way to prevent injury, sickness and burnout is to run at least 80% of your distance at an easy (zone 2) effort. For every three weeks of heavy load, consolidate gains with a rest week.
On the difference between guesses and goals
A goal is what we use to motivate us to train. I am fortunate in that I love marathon training, but without a goal it is far too easy to find reasons to procrastinate doing the work.
A few days before the race I created a mile by mile plan that had me finishing somewhere between 3:30 and 3:36.
You might be thinking, 'If you stick to your plan, it sounds like you'll hit your goal.'
The truth is a race plan is really only a guess because during marathon training we only simulate portions of the race and never the entire ordeal. It is not possible to practice running a marathon all the way through because the physical toll outweighs the fitness gain.
Marathon training is all about holding back. A marathon itself is often called a race with a twenty mile warm up because to be successful at the distance requires patience. It's really only the last 10k where you find out what you can do when you aren't holding back. That's also why the best marathoners in the world are in their late thirties. These runners have patience that takes experience to develop.
Since few people can run a practice marathon, marathon goals and plans are guesses. The better we are at training and the more experience we have, the more informed our guesses will be.
For the entire marathon my heart rate should start at 145 bpm and move up to 170 by the end. I can run a steady pace with my HR at 145 for over four hours. I can have a conversation. At 170 I am at a 5k race effort. That's not where my HR tops out, but it is an effort that I can only sustain for minutes, not hours.
Heart rate is like a mana pool that can't really be replenished during the race. Whenever my heart rate rises above maybe 150, but certainly above 155, I'm starting a countdown.
In fantasy games we trade mana for damage. In marathon running, we trade heart rate for pace. That pace will vary depending on whether you are spending HR while running up or down a hill. It will vary based on temperature and weather. It will vary based on elevation and footwear. The latest carbon plate marathon shoes can boost pace by 1-5%, which over the course of 26.2 miles is very significant. Pace will also vary based on how well rested you are.
Before running the marathon I had a 15k race in October and more recently a 10 mile marathon effort simulation in the middle of a 20 mile run. I took my results from these efforts and applied the downward adjustment that I think I could expect from running CIM in near-ideal conditions.
I train at altitude, so let's drop marathon pace by 20-30 seconds. I'll be wearing carbon shoes, that's another 5 seconds. I'll be tapered so my legs should be fresh - 10 more seconds. These adjustments brought me to my guess that I'd be able to start the race at 8:15 and then stay between 8:00 and 8:05 until mile 20. After mile 20 I was hopeful that I'd be able to cut down to 7:50 by the last mile.
It's just a guess though.
On theories of porto-potty supply
One of the reasons me and 10,000 of my running friends go to Sacramento to marathon is because CIM is a fast course (at sea level, lots of straight aways, and net down hill) with great race organization and logistics.
In the start area CIM organizers boast that there is one porto-potty for every thirty racers. I posit that this ratio is sub optimal. Let's say they have roughly 333 porto-potties (10,000 / 30). If nearly all runners want a porto-potty within 30 minutes of the start time, and every racer needs an average of 2 minutes of porto-potty time we have a demand of 20,000 minutes. 20,000 minutes divided by 333 porto-potties is just over 60 min/potty of demand. 333 porto-potties multiplied by 30 minutes is 10,000 minutes of total supply in the face of 20,000 minutes of demand. By my reckoning that's about 50% of the needed capacity.
After I warmed up, I wanted to hit a porto-potty in that high-demand, low supply 30 minute window. I waited on line for over 15 minutes. I think this took a toll on my mental state at the start of the race. Rather than being relaxed, eager, and focused, I was anxious and annoyed. Angry even.
At the start I lined up just in front of the 3:30 group. I did not want to run with them. In fact I expected them to pass me pretty much at the start of the race. I expected to catch them by the end of the race by running my second half faster than the first.
During the first two miles my HR and pace were about what I guessed they'd be, which gave me confidence to continue my plan and lock in to a 8:00-8:05 pace for the next 18 miles.
I often go into marathons expecting a transcendental experience. The exertion level is so out of the ordinary that our state of mind changes into something different and ephemral.
During this marathon, I was so utterly focused. I was so intensely rationing effort that I think I never really transcended.
From mile 3 to 20, my watch pace ranged from 7:55 to 8:05. My HR was 150-158. That is not something that happens by chance.
During miles 21, 22, and 23 I traded some heart rate, but did not get much pace in return. My HR climbed into the low 160s and my average pace was about 8:02.
With 5k remaining of the race it was time to push. And what I experienced was not transcendence, but pain.
My side got tight during mile 24 and I feared that the pain would force me to decrease my pace by 30-45 seconds. I think people call this getting a "stitch." It is unpleasant.
In the final two miles my quadriceps felt like they were being flayed. A skilled torturer was pouring heavy led into invisible incisions in my thighs.
The pain was bad.
We don't get to be in the last 5k of a marathon very often. Rarer still is to be in the final 5k where the range of outcomes is far from certain. Could I cut down to 7:50 and and hit that 3:30 goal? Or would the pain force me to a near stop and I end the race at 3:45 or worse.
With that much pain I learned something about myself. A marathon is an incredible teacher. I learned how much pain I could take and how much I was willing to take on. It wasn't that much.
The pain honestly terrified me.
I reminded myself of everything at stake. I thought about how my next chance would not come for another year. And the best I could do with all my effort and concentration was continue on at an ~8:15. I simply was unable and unwilling to take on more pain.
When I crossed the finish line I was completely blown away by the pain. All I could think was 'That was so hard.' There was no triumph. I did not raise my hands in celebration. I hunched over and grimaced. I gasped at the pain.
As I shuffled through the finishing area I could only whisper "thank you" to the volunteers handing me water, my medal and post race accoutrements.
On Seth James Demoor
In the finish area I came upon Seth James Demoor, a youtuber based out of Denver who I've been watching for years. I love getting to tell people I admire that I admire them.
Seth had a hard day as well. Putting his running out so publicly in front of tens of thousands of people takes a lot of courage because it doesn't always go well.
My average HR per mile ranged from 145-168.
My average pace per mile ranged from 7:55-8:16. Excluding the first two and final two miles my pace per mile ranged from 7:55-8:06.
My official 5k paces look even steadier ranging from 8:04-8:10.
Over the course of the race I passed 861 racers, nearly 1/10th of the entire field.
I finished in 3,465th place with a chip time of 3:32:03. I was the 2,496th male to cross the finish line (beating over half the field). I came in 382nd place out of 824 for 40-44 male division and 877th of 2,594in the Masters division.
This is my fastest marathon by 5 minutes since my children were born. It is 8 minutes slower than my personal best marathon in 2015.
On the future
I hit a pain barrier at the end of this race. I don't think it is possible for me to pass through this pain barrier, but I think I can delay its onset by improving my fitness.
I think my fitness will improve if I continue my training without any changes just by way of consistency. I think this gets me to 3:30 next year.
With a few changes I think a lifetime PR is in reach in that same timeframe. The changes that will get me below 3:24 will be:
- Dropping 10 lbs. If I race at 130 instead of 140, I'll be better for it.
- Incorporating twice a week strength training into my routine. I think this more than anything else will foil the efforts of the late race torturer.
On reminders for next year
- I brought a handheld water bottle. This was a great move. Definitely repeat this next year as it helped me stay hydrated and avoid aid station drama for the first half of the race.
- I had two Clif Bloks Energy chews. I had one single cube roughly every mile. These chews lasted the first half marathon. I then had three Huma gels roughly every three miles alternating between caffeinated and uncaffinated. Next time, bring a third Clif Bloks Energy chew and have two Huma gels in the last 10k.