How to lower your marathon PR
by Rachel Toor
No matter how many articles you read in running magazines about how to lower your PR for the marathon, the bottom line is always going to be the same: train harder and smarter. You can get advice on different workouts. You can find the lightest flats. You can eat a ton in the three days before the race (or not, which seems to be the newest wisdom). You can pick your races so that you’ll find one that says it has a “flat, fast course.” (Someone should compile a list of all the races that boast of a flat, fast course). But ultimately, you can only run what your genetic destiny and your training will allow.
Until now. Here is a sure-fire way to lower your marathon PR. It’s simple. Plan to run the Raleigh, North Carolina Marathon.
I ran the race in its inaugural edition last year. I wrote about the experience for Running Times magazine, and I talked about it in a radio commentary for my local NPR affiliate. Mixed in with a host of other problems, at around mile five the fastest 100 or so runners were directed by the local police to make a wrong turn and ended up cutting almost half a mile off the course. PRs! Except that we knew. We knew.
This year, thinking that after last year’s debacle race management would be extra careful to ensure a smooth event, I trained hard. I trained really hard. I decided not to enter other more glamorous marathons because I wanted to do well in my own backyard.
Sunday morning I felt good. My first mile was a bit fast, but not too far from my goal pace. I figured I’d slow it down and would be on target by mile two. Except I never saw a sign for mile two. Or mile three. Or mile four. Imagine the panic trying to run a good marathon while having no earthly idea of your pace. Finally, up ahead, there was a big clock at the five mile point, since there was also a 5 person relay (and a half marathon) running concomitantly. I looked at the clock. I had run 5 miles in 24 minutes.
The math starts. So, that’s a PR for 5 miles. And a PR pace for the 5K, the mile, and the 800. That’s faster than the world record pace for both the men’s and the women’s marathon. They did it again. They messed up the course of the Raleigh Marathon.
Then the thinking starts. Since I have already run two marathons this year, I do not need a time to qualify for Boston. I just wanted to run a PR. I don’t need to run 24 or 25 miles at my marathon pace. Let’s see, what else can I do (I’m not running fast at this point, so thinking is easy)? Kiawah is two weeks away. That marathon is a well-oiled machine and I’d had a blast when I ran it last. I’m sure that it’s already filled its limit. There’s a marathon in Charlotte in December. It’s a point-to-point, on a fairly hilly course. It’s a nice race, but a logistical nightmare to wake up and drive to. And besides, that’s over a month away and I am ready to run now. Then I remember: The Snowflake 50K, in the same West Virginia state forest where, when I ran the Rattlesnake 50K, I got the award for “Best Blood.” It’s next week. I’ll do that one, even though it will be the same as running a good road marathon.
Then the anger starts. I slow down and wait for some folks I’d met before the start, two guys who were running to qualify for Boston. They are less cynical than I, better people, more generous of spirit. They also have more at stake, so they are hopeful. Maybe the mile markers are just in the wrong place, they offer. Fat chance, I say. As we’re running along I see someone from my running club. “The course is short again,” I call out to him. We see him a couple of miles later and he tells us that they’re trying to add a mile to the end. One of the guys says that this is his only shot – he’s taken time off from work and from family to train for this race. He can’t just enter another one. I’m thinking: Are you kidding me? They’re trying to add a mile at the end of the race?
I have made the decision not to go on. The Boston-bound guys are waffling. They think, hopefully, that maybe we will get some information at the half. As we approach the finish line for the half marathon (which comes, I’m guessing, after less than 12 miles), there’s nothing but cheering spectators, chip timing mats, and finish line volunteers chirpily placing finisher’s medallions around the necks of those who think they’ve just run a half marathon. The guys keep running and I wish them well.
One time we can forgive a mistake like this. First time marathons present a bazillion logistical problems, and it’s more surprising when they go off without a hitch. But after last year, if I were responsible for this race, I would personally have driven the lead car and shown runners the way. It doesn’t matter to runners whose fault it was – the police, the race director, over-zealous spectators. What matters is being able to count on the validity of the course.
If you want a PR time in the marathon, come next year to Raleigh. Just don’t expect to run 26.2 miles.