A few weeks ago I ran my first Chicago Marathon—and qualified for the Boston Marathon. That morning began like every other race morning: with a lot of nervous excitement and quite a bit of doubt. It was my seventh marathon in six years and my seventh attempt at running a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time. I have been chasing that elusive BQ since my very first marathon back in 2010. Each marathon came with its share of challenges, ultimately sending me home each time without reaching that qualifying time. By some miracle in Chicago, it finally happened. I hit my pace mile after mile and came in 40 seconds under qualifying time.
I’ve been struggling to determine what made this experience so different from all the others. I knew all along I could hit the pace, but I have kept asking myself why it took seven tries. Turns out, it likely wasn’t just one thing, but a few. Looking back it seems pretty clear that there were some key changes I made this time around:
1. Everyone says you need to listen to your body
What they don’t tell you is how to react to what your body is saying. I get plenty of aches and pains during training, especially after long runs or hard workouts. On the days that I felt I needed extra rest, I’d swap a run for an extra day of cross-training. Turns out biking 20 miles a day to/from work helps remove any of that non-running guilt pretty quick; it tends to shake all those aches out too.
2. I placed a very heavy emphasis on recovery this training cycle
The biggest thing I learned was to slow down (especially 60 seconds slower on those long runs) in order to speed up. It seems a little counterintuitive, but slowing the pace dramatically helped to reduce recovery time. Not only that, but it also reduced my rate of injury. The numerous ice baths and protein shakes probably didn’t hurt either.
3. Quality over quantity
In my earlier marathon training days, I thought it was all about stacking up as much mileage as possible; the more mileage the better, right? This time, getting quality miles was way more useful than just accumulating miles. So, what are quality miles? For me I placed a heavy emphasis on running with better form (mid-to-forefoot striking), quick turnover, shorter strides, maintaining momentum, focused breathing, and keeping my overall comfort high.
4. I stopped thinking I was smarter than the training plan
I can’t say I’ve ever followed a training plan exactly as it’s been written. This time was no exception, but I stopped pretending that I knew better than the pro who wrote it. Those rest days, cross-training days, and strength training days all matter just as much as all your running days. Every day of that training plan has a purpose.
5. Setting expectations is so important
You hear it a lot, “if you want something hard enough and you work for it, you will achieve it.” Unfortunately, circumstances can change (i.e. taking time off for injury, getting sick, or just not getting enough sleep). Wanting something badly enough can only take you so far, and it certainly can’t take the place of training. I feel that’s why it’s important to set expectations along the way. Understanding what you’re actually capable of not only helps guide your race day plan, but also tends to take a lot of the pressure off.
As someone who didn’t start running until my late 20s (and arguably past my prime) I never believed that running a 7:15 min/mi for 26.2 miles was ever in me. Despite the attempts over the years, there was always something inside me doubting that it was possible. Somehow I’d always find a way to sabotage my efforts and come up short. Fortunately, this time was different and due in part to a lot the adjustments above. I’ve always said that the hardest part about running a marathon is the training. In my experience, the majority of the hard physical and mental work happens before the race even starts.
So, what’s next? Maybe something bigger and “badder” than 26.2 miles. I’m still not totally convinced my body can handle an ultra, but just like anything new, I won’t know until I try—which pretty much brings me right back where my original journey began.
Special thanks to my wife for putting up with my crap for months at a time, my family and Runkeeper/ASICS family for all the incredible support, and my PT who has performed more magic than Houdini.