2:37:27 and Much More: Results of my Grandma’s Marathon Experiment

Photo Cred: Katie McGregor

I wrote in my blog 6 weeks ago that I would try something new and different – I would run Grandma’s marathon without truly preparing for the marathon distance in the way that I normally do. I wanted to see what a shortened build-up would yield, and that was my whole goal when I signed up for the race.

I did just that. I got my answer.

In my mind, the difference between training for road races from the 5k to the half marathon and training for a race over 2 hours is 2 key ingredients: continuous long runs over 20 miles and continuous long workouts over 20 miles.

So when I said that I would not do my traditional marathon build-up, I meant that I would not include the number of long runs that we typically do, and I would not change my racing schedule to accommodate this marathon in the way that I would if it were a true target marathon.

And I stayed true to that plan. Since the Trials on February 13th, I ran just three continuous runs over 16 miles, and those were a 17-mile long run in early April, a 23-mile long run on Memorial Day weekend, and another 17-miler 15 days out from the race.

One of my favorite workouts from the season - pacing one of my favorite redheads to break 17 for the 1st time!

One of my favorite workouts from the season – pacing one of my favorite redheads to break 17 for the 1st time!

All the rest of my hard efforts were either interval workouts or the 2 track meets and 4 races that I ran:

  • 4/2 High Point University’s Vert Klasse 5k/10k pacing double 17:12 / 37:36
  • 4/15 UNC Charlotte 1500 race / 5k pacing double – 4:29.14 / 16:57.97
  • 4/30 Capital City Half Marathon USARC Championships – 9th in 1:14:19
  • 5/14 Fifth Third Bank Riverbank Run USARC 25k Championships – 4th American in 1:28:26 (1:14:56 through the HM mark and 5:34.7 pace for the last 2.42mi after that)
  • 5/22 AirBnB Brooklyn Half Marathon – 2nd in 1:14:51 (as a workout closing in 17:03 for the last 5k)
  • 6/12 Litchfield Hills Road Race 7.1mi – 3rd in 39:49 (after taking a serious tumble in the first 100m)
Post-race pic with one of my other favorite redheads.

Post-race pic with one of my other favorite redheads.

Aside from racing in High Point, Charlotte, Columbus, Grand Rapids, Brooklyn, and Litchfield, CT, I also took trips to Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Asheville, Charlottesville, Charleston (twice), and Richmond. And every time I flew somewhere I drove almost 2 hours each way to get to and from the Charlotte Airport. This was not a normal schedule for me. Particularly not something I would normally do during a marathon build-up.

Despite all the travel, I was running really well, and by the time Grandma’s came around, Terry and I had big hopes for the race. We both felt that based on my workouts and races, I was in the best shape of my life, which means that we both believed that I was capable of breaking my 2:33:15 PR in Duluth if the weather cooperated.

On the bus to the start! Ready to do our favorite thing!

On the bus to the start! Ready to do our favorite thing!

But the weather did not really cooperate, and the night before the race, Terry predicted that I would have to run at least 5-8 seconds per mile slower than we had planned.

We got to the starting line and it was 68 degrees with a dew point of 64 – very similar to the conditions in Beijing, but with added heat from the direct sunlight. From the very start, I could feel that I just didn’t have the freshness in my legs that I usually have in those first few miles of a marathon, even despite our adjustment.

With Sarah Cummings and Lauren Jimison in tow, our little pack trucked along at 6:00 pace with very little variation for almost 14 miles before our group was joined by Kelsey Bruce. That shook things up a bit, and I tried to go, but it just didn’t work. Then I tried to hang on for about another mile or so before I knew that matching the group’s move just wasn’t in the cards for me.

At 16 miles, I had reached the length of my average long run and still had over 10 miles left in the race. Despite the fact that this was my 12th marathon and I have averaged 76.5 miles per week over the last 7 years, I still felt in my gut that I wouldn’t have anything left if I went with the pack at that point. So I reluctantly let them go, praying that I’d find another gear after 20 miles.

But that gear never came to me. And while I kept plugging away at 6:00 pace, the flock left me behind.

Photo Cred: Katie McGregor

Less than 2 miles to go and I was counting every step. Photo Cred: Katie McGregor

I’ve been thinking about the lack of freshness in my legs since the race and, as always, I know there were several factors.

  • Maybe it was just not my day. Unfortunately I am human and we all have bad days.
  • Maybe despite my best efforts to layer up in the 2 weeks prior to the race, I was less prepared for the heat than usual after spending an overall cool spring season up in the mountains.
  • Maybe it was the hot, hilly and hard 7.1mi race that I ran less than 6 days before.
  • Maybe it was the 41 days of travel in the 72 days prior to the race.
  • Or maybe it was the fact that I didn’t do enough long runs to prepare my legs and my fat-burning system for the type of late surge that my packmates Sarah and Lauren were able to put in over the last 10 miles.

Lauren Jimison told me that she and Sarah Cummings sat down and calculated the effect of the weather on our race. The calculator they used predicted that the difference was approximately 7 seconds per mile (good call, Terry), meaning that our overall times were 3 minutes slower than our given fitness in good conditions.

If their calculations are correct, then both of them ran big PRs and I would come away from the day with a 2:34:24, which would be my 3rd-fastest time ever.

The flock!

The flock!

In my first post about this experiment, I mentioned that my intent was to find out how close to my best that I could get on short notice and without fully targeting a race. I also mentioned two hypothetical outcomes of this experiment:

  1. I run significantly slower than I have off of Terry’s typical marathon build-ups and we learn that the time invested in a full marathon build-up is effective and totally worthwhile and cannot be successfully skipped (at least not in the way that we will try this time).
  2. I run about the same or only slightly slower than I would have with a traditional build-up and we learn that hey, maybe I can successfully run 3-4 high-quality marathons in a calendar year. This would potentially open a lot of doors to more opportunities to compete at my specialty event and thereby also significantly increase my earning potential while doing what I love most!

And after my experience on Saturday, this is my analysis of the result:

First of all, this is real life and there were way too many variables and only one result – not very scientific. As Cole reminded me when I started to express my disappointment after the race, this was an experiment from the start and I had to be okay with any outcome and use it to learn instead of judge.

With that in mind, I would not say that I ran significantly slower than I have, especially with the weather conversion. But other than that, the outcome was both 1 and 2. While I still performed very respectably, I believe that the extra travel and lack of focus on this particular race and distance-specific training did certainly impact my ability to perform my best on Saturday.

Even though my fitness was excellent, I’d like to believe that my performance was impacted by at least 90 seconds due to lack of marathon-specific focus and preparation and particularly with the added race 6 days before. In the grand scheme of things, 3-4 seconds per mile is still pretty darn consistent.

Finally, here are the elements that I have reaffirmed are crucial to a successful marathon build-up:

  • Stay in one place as long as you can and try not to travel more than you have to.
  • Racing a bunch during a build-up is possible and can be great, but be careful, especially in the last 2 weeks.
  • Whatever you do, don’t skimp on your long runs and never get too far away from long, sustained efforts.

All that is to say that I got everything out of this experiment that I could have hoped for and more. Grandma’s Marathon was an incredible experience. I’m coming away from it with an even greater confidence in my plan for the next go around and super excited to get back to the grind of a true marathon build-up.

I literally can’t wait to find out what I can do with two years’ worth of accumulated fitness combined with a good old traditional build-up and hopefully great conditions. But for now it’s recovery time, so I guess we’ll all have to wait until the fall to see what my next marathon result will be!

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My fortune cookie from the night before.

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