Monday, May 11, 2009

Go Out Fast, Tire Your Ass

This is how I'm hoping to qualify for Boston
Kim over at sent me a great article this week about marathon pacing strategies. It was written with the Kansas City Marathon in mind, but could apply to any marathon, really.

When I was getting ready to run my first marathon, everyone including Dean Karnazes told me to start out slow (OK, he didn't tell me this in person, but I'm pretty sure he was speaking to me in his book). Dean says, "if you think you are going slow, go slower." Being such a novice, I won't question anything the Ultra Marathon Man tells me. Hell, if he told me the secret success to running a marathon was wearing only a thong and flip flops, I would probably do it. So I blindly took this advice. It seemed logical - you go out too fast and you tire your ass, maybe even miles and miles before the finish.

I never totally understood the physiology behind this advice until I read this:

The body needs to warm up for at least 2 miles. During that time, it goes from an inefficient fuel burning (converting oxygen, sugar/fat, electrolytes to energy) and waste removal (getting rid of lactic acid and built up heat) machine to a more efficient one.

If someone pushes it too hard (even doing even pace) in that time period, they will use up an inordinate amount of stored glycogen while accumulating an inordinate amount of lactic acid to set up an almost certain bonking for the last 1/3 of the marathon.

Makes sense, right?

Then take this into account:

Honor the Domino Effect. Imagine 26 dominoes lined up. Which domino has the greatest impact? The first one, right? In the same manner, the first mile is the most crucial, make-or-break mile of the marathon. Therefore, you need to be the most conservative with this one. Vice versa, the last mile is the least critical so you can afford to be the most aggressive on that one. But, what do most people do? The opposite!

Just like the first mile, the first aid station is the most important, make-or-break aid station to determine how well people can keep their ‘gas tank’ from going on empty while the last aid station is the least important towards overall race performance. Again, what do most people do? They rush through the first ones until they’re forced to walk through the last ones. Get what you need in the first 20 miles of aid stations if you want to have any hope of getting what you want in the last 6.2 miles.

I have to say this "start slow" strategy worked well for me. I let all those crazies pass me the first couple of miles, which sucks for someone like me who can be competitive. I wanted to tell them all, "hey, I can run faster, but I have a strategy in mind," like they would care. I kept hoping I'd be passing them later (not sure if this happened or not). I had to hold back.

I remember panicking when I hit the one mile mark and saw I had run it in nearly 11 minutes. "That just won't do," my ego screamed. So I picked it up slightly, but ran the second mile in maybe 10 minutes. My plan was to hold back until half way, then see how I felt. And I have to say that at mile 13 I was feeling incredibly strong and maintained that through mile 20. At that point, I started to break down a bit mentally and physically, but was able to maintain my pace. My average pace for the entire marathon was 9.1 min/mile, so I did make up for those slow miles in the beginning.

As far as being sure to hit the first aid station - I make it a practice to hit all aid stations, but to never walk or stop. I like to be cool and throw my half drunk cup of water at someone on the sidelines while I run away (just kidding). I think this is why so many of us go faster during races - aside from the adrenaline of the crowd and it being do-or-die-race-mentality, we probably fuel more adequately than we do on our solo runs (that is if we take advantage of the aid stations). If you're an elite runner or just incredibly fast, I'm not talking to you. (But if you're one of those people, you probably don't read my little insignficant blog anywya).

So, it seems it's all about holding back a bit at the beginning, settling into a steady, yet doable rhythm thereafter, and hanging in there through the inevitable bumps in the road that we encounter (cramps, gas, toilet issues, crying, gagging).

You marathoners (or to be marathoners) out there - what's your pacing strategy?


  1. Wasn't that a great article? I was surprised to find it there - completely by accident!

    I struggle with starting out slow, but their logic makes sense to me. I am going to try it at the KC Marathon, and probably stick with a group. I am going to try it during training too.

    I am excited to see what other commenters say!

  2. PS, that picture is HILARIOUS! Where do people find costumes like that?!

  3. First nine miles should feel very easy and no strain. Good turnover, but I shouldn't be working for the pace. Next nine miles I can begin to slowly reel in people ahead of me and pick them off. Last 8.2 is the fastest I can possibly go for 8.2. This has worked the two times I actually pulled it off.

  4. Hah! That pic is great! I'm about 90% sure that I'm going to sign up for the San Antonio marathon. I want my first marathon to be flat because I'm a wuss! I'm going to check out a few more from that, but my goal is to decide by the end of the week. Let me know if you see anything better. I figure the rock and roll ones would be good to keep you pumped up too. Have you ran in one? Tara

  5. I'm so glad you posted this today - I needed to read that. I have to keep convincing myself to run my own race - not worry if other people are passing me.

    We run a Halloween 5K every year, and my friend Mac wore that costume a couple of years ago - except his was an ostrich!

  6. I have the ego problem myself when starting out in a race. I feel funny starting to slow, like everyone is judging me that I can't go any faster. I appreciate your post and advice. I really need to get over the ego thing.

  7. Pacing strategy? What the ^%^%$? I remember when I was on my last run before my first marathon, my partner asked what my strategy was and I said I didn't know. I thought it meant how you might break it up and that's it. I was so out of focus and hadn't taken much of this major endeavor very seriously. Within reason and with balance in mind I need to take my outlook on strategy up several notches. I loved the insight of this article and your comments. I am about to go out and and churn out around 6 miles with this in mind. Thanks for the great information

  8. For smaller marathons I start at the back. Thihs forces me to take it easy. Once things naturally string out, I am up to normal pace.

  9. I crashed and burned in my first (only, so far) marathon because I went out too fast. Way too fast.

    This is some great advice - thanks!

  10. That is a great post. You really hit the nail on the head - if you go out too fast, even for only a mile or two, you will pay a very steep price at the end.

    My strategy is to go out slower than my expected pace for the first two miles and then work into my race pace from there. I figure I can pick that time up in the last 6 miles when I'm feeling good rather than just trying to hold things together.

  11. Ok. I've mailed in my San Antonio marathon registration! See you there!!

  12. Great post! It is always so hard to hold back that first mile. The music is blaring, the crowds are cheering and your adrenaline is rushing with the anticipation. I ran San Antonio last year (it was my first) and it was killer to hold back the pace those first 15 - but you're right. I was doing OK by 18 and finished right where I wanted - across the line. :)

  13. Excellent post. I always start out too stinkin' fast! I get caught up & panic that I'm going too slow. My next 26.2 - no pace group for me so I can relax & go as slow as I need to the first miles w/o worrying about keeping up.

  14. ohh does that mean you are considering KC??

    I have always been a slow to warm up gal and then it's like the legs turn on and BAM... glad to know my body is just doing what it should

  15. San Antonio was pretty good. It's HUGE, so a lot of avoiding other runners the first 13 - you run through narrow streets downtown, but it's very scenic. The back 13 opened up, but it had a lot of rolling hills. It wasn't crazy hilly, but more than the "flat course" that they advertised. And get in a fast corral - faster than you would normally be in, if you can. It took me 45 minutes to just get to the start line b/c I was in a slower corral. That was a little frustrating.

    Here's my race post on it which goes into a little more detail.

  16. Great post. I know I am supposed to start out slow, but I have such a hard time with it. I have to work very hard not to get caught up in the crowd, excitment etc.

  17. Great post. I really TRIED to go with that theory, but so many stupid thoughts pop into my peanut brain. Like 'run faster now, while you have the energy because you sure as hell won't have it at mile 20." But it turned out ok - still 8 freakin' minutes too slow for BQ.

  18. I try to do the same thing. The times I have started fast--even on shorter races--I have seriously paid for it 2/3 way in and I got sick of doing that. On my half marathon, I started 30 seconds slower than I wanted my pace to be and really had to hold back. But I was passing people miles 9-13 so it definitely worked out. And I finished with more energy than in any other race I've done so far. It works!!