Running a Sub 3 Hour Marathon: An Exercise in Patience
Running a sub 3 hour marathon – me? The whole thing was a pretty crazy idea. How on earth did I think I could run that fast, for that long? After all, that’s 26.2 miles at an average of 6:52 per mile which is kind of insane!
Four short years ago, I ran my first marathon in 4:02. Believe me, a sub-three was definitely not on my mind that day.
But run after run, race after race, the thought of breaking the three hour barrier began to consume me. Then, a year and a half ago, I thought I was ready. I wasn’t.
And it probably wasn’t because of my fitness. Being 100% plant-based I was in great shape with tons of energy. I also had more miles in my legs since that maiden marathon, so my overall strength had improved, but realizing this dream didn’t happen just because of fitness and diet. It was a careful mix of drive tempered by patience.
For me the drive was the easy part. What I didn’t realize was that I had no idea how much I needed to learn about patience.
So Why Phoenix? I chose the Mesa Phoenix Marathon partly because my dad lives in Phoenix and partly because of the course. It’s a point-to-point with a mostly gentle descent with a history of fast times and good weather.
If I was going to break three hours, this was as good of a course as any. Before I left home, I prepared my race nutrition.
Having the Right Nutrition
I used a version of my super popular recipe for Homemade DIY UCAN, but instead of cornstarch, I replaced it with tapioca starch. The tapioca is a little less chalky than cornstarch so the final product is smoother. I used 60g of starch and added about 20g of corn syrup for a little extra glucose. The corn syrup does make it harder to mix later, but it’s so calorie dense, that I think it’s worth it.
Next I marked everything I would eat with the time I was supposed to eat it. When I woke up, I had toast (pre-toasted since I didn’t know if I’d have access to a toaster at the hotel!) with almond butter and a banana with a small cup of coffee. At 4am, I drank 40g of starch with beet powder and 1/2tsp of beta alanine.
I had brought my usual fig bar to eat 45 minutes before the start, but I felt too full so I went without.
Even though in my last two marathons I went without taking the second bottle of fuel I prepared, I was still nervous about only carrying about 300 calories on the course. Since I’m small I don’t really need more than that, but you just never know, so I mixed up a sticky gel of starch and corn syrup flavored with True Lemon powder. Basically a concentrated version of the liquid.
I know that I should never try anything new on race day, but I figured it was better to have an emergency stash of calories, just in case.
At 36 degrees, this was the coldest marathon I’d raced, so I was concerned about being warm without being too warm. I settled on a singlet with arm sleeves that I could toss and a buff that I could use on my head if it felt too cold.
I would end up tossing both the buff and the sleeves after Mile 16.
Inside my gloves, I used Hot Hands which was a huge help. The fingers on my right hand still ended up freezing, but that was due to something that I never could have predicted.
Unexpected Chaos Getting to the Start
I had scheduled an Uber to pick me up at the hotel at 3:45 am to get to the buses that bring all the runners to the start of the course. The last bus was scheduled to leave at 4:45 am for the 6am start, so I figured I had plenty of time.
As I waited in the lobby, I chatted with a couple of runners whose father Larry was driving them to the start. After a few minutes it became clear – my Uber driver was not showing up. Larry offered to give me a ride which I gladly accepted.
Due to road construction, race detours, and race traffic, we got to the parking lot with only a few minutes to spare then had to power walk across the shopping mall lot to get on the right bus.
With all my meticulous preparation this was definitely a lot more stress than I like to have at the start of a race. I was exercising patience before the race had even started! Thankfully, I had met a new friend to chat with to ease the nerves.
At 5:15 am on the ride up I took my 40mg caffeine mint and 500mg Tylenol.
Miles 1-6: 6:37, 6:43, 6:48, 6:41, 7:04, 7:08
With a 6am start time, we ran in dark for the better part of an hour. It almost seems a shame to miss the prettiest part of the course to the dark, so I’m thankful I got to see the suaros in the desert on my pre-race drive the day before.
The first two miles of the course have the biggest elevation drop of the course, but at just 126 feet each mile, it’s still not what anyone would call steep.
It’s smart to use the descent to your advantage for speed, but it’s essential not to just fly down the road wasting energy this early.
The effort felt very in control here and adjusting for the hill, I was probably even a bit conservative here.
At Mile 3, I reached into my shorts pocket for my fuel bottle and gave it a good shake. It was unusually hard to suck through the valve, but it eventually started flowing. But unfortunately, it didn’t stop.
After I put it back in my pocket, I felt my leg get wet.
Somehow the valve on my bottle broke or got stuck open and my precious calories were splashing out with each step down my leg!
I tried not to panic and carried my bottle in my hand to control the leaking.
This fuel was supposed to last the entire course and I would either have to carry the bottle the whole time to keep it from splashing out or drink it all much earlier than planned. Neither ideal.
Mile 4-6 is the steepest uphill of the course. Again, nothing is truly steep on this course, but you definitely know that you are going uphill here. The wind was hitting us head on at that point, so I tried to draft behind the guy ahead of me, but seeing the 7:04 spooked me a bit, so I ended up passing him, still carrying my bottle in my hand.
I felt good as I crested the hill and prepared to use the backside of the hill to my advantage again.
Miles 7 to 13.1: 6:30, 6:43, 6:40, 6:42, 6:55, 6:45, 6:51, Half Marathon Spilt: 1:28:46 (6:47/mile pace)
By Mile 8 I had decided to just finish my bottle and put it back in my pocket. But as my cold, wet fingers fumbled with the bottle, it dropped to the ground right at the aid station. No point in going after it!
Miles 7 to 10 are the last of the significant downhill and as you can tell by the slow 6:55 split, Mile 11 was flat. I was not too concerned since I had time to spare at this point, but seeing that one flash on my watch reminded me to keep up the effort.
All during the first half, my legs felt great, my breathing was even and under control, and negative thoughts were few and temporary.
With the layout of the course I had planned a positive split (the first half faster than the second) so I was right where I wanted to be at this point.
Miles 14-20 6:46, 6:54, 6:49, 6:52, 6:57, 6:59
This is where the race flattens out, both in elevation and mentally. I knew I had some time to give here, so I wasn’t overly concerned about losing speed here, but this is a fine line to balance. And it takes patience.
I like to say that a marathon is a 20 mile warm up for a 10k race, so I knew I didn’t want to push up the effort level too high before mile 20.
But I also didn’t want to see any mile come in above 7 minutes either.
At this point the full runners were mixing with the slowest of the half marathon runners on the same course who had also started at 6am and had a 13.1 mile advantage. A group of about 5 men began to pass me and I heard them all strategizing about staying on a 3 hour pace.
The leader asked me, “Oh, are you running the half?” I thought it should be pretty obvious by my pace that I was not one of the slowest half marathoners, but I just smiled and said no.
I could tell by their labored breathing that they were not going to last, so I let them pass me and they all eventually came back to me.
At around Mile 18, I opened my untested gel. Its gluey consistency was an instant fail so that got tossed at an aid station.
I’d managed to gulp a sip or two of Gatorade at the aid stations and a couple of sips of water at each one.
Miles 21 to 26.2: 6:59, 7:06, 6:57, 6:46, 6:31, 6:34 (.2)
Clearly Miles 18-22 were my weakest. Physically, I still felt pretty good at this point and kept being a little bit surprised each time the mile splits would come back slow. That 7:06 was definitely a big warning sign of potential trouble.
But I was putting in the exact same effort at that point! And that was exactly the problem.
I was working very hard to not overdo it too soon before Mile 20, which was the right plan, but I think I was too cautious on Miles 21-23, afraid to exponentially increase my effort just to stay even.
Whenever I felt like it was getting tough, I remembered to smile and think of images of other people happy and smiling. While this may sounds silly – it worked.
I kept telling myself, “today is your day,” and “rise above,” meaning rise above the discomfort like a phoenix.
Again, I knew that I had a little time to spare, so I didn’t get too worked up about getting off pace here, but when I had only 5k to go, it was on.
The last 3.1 miles was where I just let go of the past 23 miles and treated it as if I was running a stand alone 5k. Controlled, easy breathing went out the window and it was pure, fiery intensity.
There was no time for water stops and no time for the half marathon walkers to get in my way. I even jumped up on the sidewalk at one point to have a clear path to the finish.
The last quarter mile was just a touch below hyperventilation and I was pumping my arms as hard as I could to the finish.
My dad and his wife were waiting just beyond the line calling out my name and congratulating me. I finished the course in 2:58:40!
The second half came in at 1:29:55 (6:52/mile pace), the last 10K was 42:22 (6:50 pace), and the last 5k was 20:48 (6:42 average pace).
So while I planned to be slower the second half, I am so proud and happy that I was able to push it so hard the last 5k.
Phoenix is a competitive course for non-elites with lots of prize money, so I was only the 7th woman and 3rd woman over 40 to cross the line. Clearly, lots of speedy women out there!
The next day as I write this, I’m surprisingly the least sore I have ever been following a marathon. I suspect it is mainly due to the extra cushioning of the Nike Vaporfly 4% I wore instead of my usual racing flats.
Or maybe it means that I could have run faster… 😉
As promised, I’m taking a break from the marathon for now and focusing on helping others reach their goals. I’m not completely ruling out doing another one late this year, but nothing is going on the calendar for a while. This was a tough training cycle for me mentally and I need to just savor this one for as long as I can.
Not having any races scheduled is not something that I’m really comfortable with, because I like having goals.
But this time, at least for a little while, I’ll be exercise patience.