Everyone knows you’ve got to pace yourself in a marathon.
Go out too hard, and you’re toast before the race is half over. And you won’t just lose a few minutes, either: starting too fast can turn race day into an utter disaster.
This is exactly what happened to me during my first marathon. My friends and I took off at Boston-qualifying pace, aiming for a 3:10:59 that we truly had no business attempting.
By mile 18, we crashed. And instead of a 3:10 or even a 4 hour marathon, it took us 4 hours and 53 minutes. Over 100 minutes slower than the time we had naively set out to run when we signed up on a whim six months earlier.
But what if I told you this same concept of pacing should apply not just on race day, but to your entire next few years of running?
Don’t make the mistake I did …
I tell my Boston-qualifying story a lot, but here’s something I’m not so proud of: it took me almost eight years to go from 4:53:41 to 3:09:59.
A nice story, sure. But what stings is to realize that if I were smarter back then, if I had known how to pace myself race-to-race, I could have gotten to Boston in three years, not eight.
After that humbling first marathon, I wanted even more badly to qualify. So I did what came naturally to a goal-driven kid like myself, and said, “I’m going to run another one, and this time, I’m going to do it.”
I told everyone, bet people money. Invited friends to come watch me to do it. Create accountability, right?
This time, I missed it by 42 minutes.
So what did I do? You guessed it: I said I was going to qualify for Boston the next time. And again I failed, improving by only a few more minutes.
In some way, this was progress. So I did it again and again — starting out every training cycle with the goal of qualifying — until eventually I did run my 3:10, six months after going vegetarian and starting this blog.
But do you see what I did wrong?
We overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but dramatically underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.
You probably know that I’m a big fan of setting big, unreasonable goals. Boston certainly “qualifies” (wow, sorry, couldn’t resist).
But I also now know how important it is to give yourself time to make those crazy goals happen. The quote above makes that clear: think big, but start small.
In other words, be patient. That’s one thing I wasn’t.
My philosophy was “Act as if my life depends on qualifying for Boston in my next marathon.” I thought that by aiming so high, even if I missed, it wouldn’t be by much.
What I learned, the hard way, is that running doesn’t work like that.
Do you know what happens when you set your training paces too fast? When you should be doing tempo runs at an eight minute-per-mile pace, but you’re trying to do them at 7:30?
Yes, it’s really hard. But you actually get faster, for a little while.
And then you get hurt.
And then, instead of taking you six months between marathons, it takes you a full year just to get back to a start line.
And that’s the sad irony of it: the faster you try to get there, the longer it will take.
What to do instead
I’m never going to tell you not to think big. In fact, go ahead and think bigger.
But do yourself a favor, and give yourself time.
If you’re 40 minutes away from qualifying for Boston, but you can’t let go of the idea that you can get there … well, congratulations. Most people don’t dare to think that big, much less admit it.
Or if your go-to joke is the “I only run if I’m being chased” one (and come on, let’s put that to bed, please) but somewhere in your heart you wonder what it’d be like if you — yes, you — could run a marathon, then again, you have my admiration and respect.
But please, don’t set out to go from couch to marathon, or from 4 hours down to 3:30, this year. You’re setting yourself up to get hurt, or at the very least, to take unnecessarily long to reach your goal.
If it’s a marathon you want to run, become a runner first. Do the 5K this year, 10K and half marathon next year. You don’t have to wait to make the plans, though — in fact, today, you can take out that calendar and figure out what marathon you’re going to run two years from now.
Same with qualifying for Boston. If you’re 30 minutes from where you need to be, what’s a fast race you can run next fall? Good. Now plan one for this fall and next spring, spacing them six months apart, and now you’ve got three steps instead of one. (And even that might be too aggressive, but with a plan like this, you’ll figure that out sooner and less spectacularly than I did.)
It’s a simple point, but one that so many runners don’t understand: pacing yourself doesn’t just happen on race day, it happens race-to-race.
Think big. But start small.