I completed my first marathon in January 2009 in 4 hours and 22 minutes. I had finished the Disney Marathon and was thrilled to of completed the race! My goal for that first race was to just finish without having to walk. I will admit it was a struggle around mile 21 but I was able to slowly run the few remaining miles and cross the finish line with my hands held high. I had never been happier to be done with a race. A few minutes earlier while still struggling to complete the race, I admit to thinking I must be crazy to attempt this feat and any idea of running a second marathon was out of the question. Then once I crossed the finish line and the thrill of completing my first marathon starting sinking in, I threw those doubts out the window and starting planning on my second marathon.
I ran my second race just a month later Feb 2009 in Birmingham at the Mercedes Marathon. I beat my previous time and finished in 4 hours and 18 minutes. My goal all along had been to complete a marathon in less than 4 hours. I realized after completing these two events that if I was ever going to reach that goal I needed to change the way I trained. Up to that point my training consisted of running a few days during the week and a long run on the weekend. My pace for these training runs was right around 10 minutes per mile. I only ran one 20 mile route prior to my first race. Basically my training up to that point had been to get my body in shape to finish a marathon. My body was not in shape though to complete a marathon in less than 4 hours.
I signed up for the Chicago Marathon that spring and decided I had to come up with a new training plan. I did a lot of research and talked to several other runners. The two most common answers to my questions on how to lower my marathon time below 4 hours were:
- Add more long runs of 20 plus miles
- Train at a faster pace
I setup a training schedule that started in early June and ran through race day in October. Where my previous training schedule included just one 20 mile run, this new schedule had three 20 mile runs. During my initial training I waited until three weeks before my race to run my first 20 miler. With the new schedule I was already running a 20 miler two months prior to race day. My plan was that these additional miles would increase my endurance so that instead of slamming into the “wall” around mile 21 I would be able to continue speeding along to the finish line.
The other major change to my training routine was increasing the pace of my runs. This was not easy to change in mid summer but with the help of running partners I was able to speed up my pace. In all of my previous training I had been holding my training pace to around 10 minutes per mile. This worked great in getting me to the starting line without injury but was not enough to get me to my target time of less than 4 hours. I had to increase my training pace down to at least 9 minutes per mile if I was going to have the speed to finish in less than 4 hours. I ran all of my training runs at this new pace throughout the long hot summer. The key thing I remember hearing from other runners was that if I trained at a 10 minute pace I could not expect to finish a marathon at a 9 minute pace. I needed to train closer to my desired race pace or my body would not be conditioned enough to last for 26 miles at this new pace.
On October 11 I ran the Chicago Marathon and completed the race in 3 hours, 50 minutes and 42 seconds! I came in well under my 4 hour goal and smashed my PR by about 27 minutes. I was able to accomplish this by adjusting my training mileage and increasing my pace.
I would not advise using these technique’s for your first marathon. You need to have at least one marathon finish behind you before pushing the limit like I did. I have learned that no two runners are alike and not everything works for everyone but by making these two adjustments I was able to achieve my goal. The key is to set a goal early, create a plan that fits your capabilities and be willing to adjust your plan to be more aggressive or less aggressive depending on how your body handles the training. Over time you will learn what works best for you.