Back It Up
By Kevin Beck
“I trained six months for this race. Then it was 85°!”
“I was on goal pace at 17 miles, but blisters knocked me out.”
“All those long runs, and I blew up at 21. Maybe next year.”
What marathoner hasn’t heard—or uttered—words like these? After months of high mileage, marathon-pace runs and tempo training, you taper, stock your glycogen stores and hone your mental focus to a razor edge. You’re ready to go.
But on race morning, something goes awry. By day’s end, you don’t ever want to hear the word “marathon” again.
If you fall on your face in a 5K or 10K, you can hop into another one the following weekend. But after a marathon disaster, you won’t get another shot for months. Or will you?
Part of the marathon’s allure is how hard-earned PRs are. A hot or rainy day might spell discomfort in a short race, but poor weather conditions have an exponential effect on performance in a 26.2-miler. Gastrointestinal distress, muscle cramps, dehydration and blisters can all arise in shorter races, but not as often as in the marathon, where their sting can prove fatal. Errors in judgment can lead to survival shuffles and humbling DNFs.
Despite these pitfalls, most runners are so busy micromanaging their training and tapering schedules that they don’t look beyond the day of the goal marathon at a contingency plan—in this case, another marathon scheduled within two weeks. Here’s how to attack this important element of marathon training.
Self-Confidence and Goal-Setting
First, know exactly what you want to accomplish in your goal marathon. Even veteran competitors arrive at a race making excuses: “Well, I don’t really need to break three hours; a Boston qualifier is enough,” or, “This isn’t feeling like my day; I’ll just treat it as a training run.” These nettlesome ideas are natural, but they need to be recognized and banished, because the marathon salvage plan doesn’t have much margin for error.
The plan also requires a firm belief in your capabilities. It may seem unlikely that you can throw your hat in the ring two weeks after bonking at 20 miles. But as Byrne Decker, a 2:26 marathoner from Maine, says, “Some of my best marathons have come soon after blowing up in my ‘goal’ race—the ‘crash’ race in effect becomes a marathon-pace run.”
Preparing for a backup effort also demands careful attention to specific physiological factors. “Salvaging a race performance for a better opportunity requires a balance of two elements: recovery and maintenance of conditioning,” says Kyle Heffner, M.S., an exercise physiologist, 2:10 marathoner and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. “The recovery aspect involves determining the optimal point to ‘shut down’ the initial race to avoid a total utilization of physical resources available for the backup effort, while the conditioning aspect means maximizing the training effect of the initial race itself.”
There are two basic things that can ruin your goal race: bad weather or a plain lousy day. Whichever it is in your case will dictate what sort of salvaging plan you’ll employ.
You can almost always get a decent training run out of a bad-weather day. But if you have great conditions, only to bonk or fall victim to blisters, dehydration or injury, you’re faced with demoralization on top of the physical consequences.
In either case, you should schedule a backup marathon for two weeks later. This will allow adequate recovery time while still preserving your aerobic conditioning. These days, it’s not difficult to find a second quality event, as just about every weekend in the spring and fall features a major marathon somewhere.
It’s wise to sign up for both marathons in advance if your backup marathon has a limited field size. You probably don’t want to select a goal race too late in the spring or fall, because finding a backup that suits your geographical, family and other needs may be more difficult in the relatively
dormant seasons of summer and winter. On the other hand, you don’t want to race too early in the fall or the spring, because it’s precisely then that you may encounter adverse race-day conditions, and be limited by the weather in training.
|Scenario #1: Bad Weather|
|Sunday: goal “race” (18- to 20-mile hard, controlled run)|
|Monday-Thursday: easy running|
|Friday: 4- to 8-mile tempo run|
|Saturday: easy running|
|Sunday: Somewhat long run, about 2/3 of your typical long-run distance|
|Monday: fartlek running incorporating 3 to 5 800-meter pickups at 5K pace|
|Tuesday: easy running|
|Wednesday: 4 to 6 miles at marathon goal pace|
|Thursday-Saturday: easy running|
|Sunday: backup race|
The Race-Day Weather Fiasco
If race morning dawns too hot, cold, wet or windy to afford a realistic chance at success, it’s wise not to walk away in disgust altogether, because in order to race effectively within two weeks, you need to compensate for the tapering you’ve done. As Heffner notes, “There is an inevitable decline in the physical conditioning when tapering mileage in preparing for a race.”
Therefore, you should take advantage of the race situation—even in imperfect conditions—to get in a solid, controlled training run. One benefit is that you’ll have the company of other marathoners, splits, aid stations, etc. The challenge is to be firm on your decision not to race. You can shoot for the pace of a solid training run (within 25 to 30 seconds per mile of your goal
pace), picking it up over the second half of the run as much as conditions permit. Also, unless you’re used to weekly 25-milers, scale back to about 18 to 20, which will leave you fresher in the race to follow.
|Scenario #2: The Crash|
|Sunday: goal “race”|
|Monday-Saturday: easy running|
|Sunday: 4- to 6-mile tempo run|
|Monday-Tuesday: easy running|
|Wednesday: 12 miles, 8 at marathon pace|
|Thursday-Saturday: easy running|
|Sunday: backup race|
The Race-Day Crash
If you crash and burn in the late stages of a marathon, you’re likely to feel almost as bad physically as if you’d raced successfully. It’s important to know when to cut your losses en route and drop out (if possible) or at least shift out of racing mode. “The point in the race at which a runner must decide whether to stop or continue is roughly half to two-thirds of a full marathon, depending on individual capabilities and conditioning,” says Heffner. “‘Grinding out’ a full marathon for no other reason but to finish will, in all likelihood, interfere with any second race effort within several weeks.”
Regardless of whether you finish, you need to treat yourself the same way you would after a great effort. Get warm (or cool). Pound fluids and carbs. Shower and get some rest. If you do these things, and if you were well-trained, you can probably forestall ruinous physical effects and even derive significant training benefits.
Above are guidelines for your two-week salvage phase. The second plan makes allowances for the increased physical stress exacted by a crash-and-burn effort, but otherwise they’re similar.
The experiences of many runners shows that these plans can produce a great marathon. Often the effort and achievement only seem possible in hindsight. But with these ideas, you won’t have to rely on reflection or “accidental” PRs—you can plan ahead.