At this point in the training cycle, within a week of my first big race of 2017, I have as clear an understanding of my current fitness as I will get. While the taper does include some workouts, they are less telling than near-max efforts weeks and months ago.
So this is an appropriate point to settle on a final goal time and a pacing strategy. I’ve been pondering the subject all week — the answers do not come easily.
The challenge is this: How can I accurately extrapolate my training data to a specific race and to specific race day conditions?
Ideally, I would have a vast and relevant dataset. For example, if I’d finished the Boston Marathon multiple times, seen a wide range of race day weather, and followed the same training regimen for years, my finish time would be predictable and my pacing strategy would be well informed.
But I’m working with much less data. I have:
- Not raced Boston.
- Completed only one other marathon, the Colorado Marathon, but that course is dramatically different and my fitness has dramatically improved since then.
- Seventeen percent less oxygen in Boulder, Colo. than in Boston, Mass.
- No training routes that match perfectly Boston’s vertical profile. And,
- Not done the same workouts so many times that I know precisely how changes in temperatures, wind, and sun exposure affect my performance.
In this case, input from a coach and/or race veterans is extremely useful. By sizing up my workouts and past performances against those of other runners, I can narrow the range of possibilities, in my case to within about a 4-minute window. Still, four minutes is huge:
- A 2:29-high is more impressive than a 2:33-high, but more importantly,
- Attempting to run a 2:30 if you’re in 2:34 shape, or a 2:34 if you’re in 2:30 shape, will not result in a peak performance.
Pacing: Risk versus reward
The optimal pacing strategy for a marathon depends on the runner and the course, but generally it involves even or slightly positive splits. If my goal time is spot-on and if I follow the racing plan, the last few miles should really suck, but I’ll roughly maintain my pace through the finish line.
If I start more aggressively than what I believe to be my optimal pace, I may surprise everyone with a huge PR (in which case my goal time proved to be too conservative), or I may blow up and slow down dramatically.
If I start more slowly than what I believe to be my optimal pace, I can’t offset all the time I “lost” early on, but the race won’t be an epic fail either because I won’t be relegated to a jog or even a walk for the final 10k (unless my goal time was way too ambitious, in which case it’ll be a great thing that I started as conservatively as I did).
Besides finishing time and place, there is an emotional aspect to how a race ends. If I run conservatively and leave some on the table, I remain hungry for the next race, wanting to prove I can do ever better. If I put it all on the line, motivation to return to the well again may be lacking for some time.
To help illustrate this conundrum, here are coach David’s predictions for my Boston finish:
I think the range of times in a normal weather year is:
- 2:31 to 2:34, if you go out at 2:33 pace;
- 2:29 to 2:39, if you go out at 2:30 pace; and,
- 2:28 to 2:42, if you go out at 2:29 pace.
So around here this week, the two big questions are:
1. How accurate is David’s sense for my fitness? (I’m inclined to believe him — he’s been pretty good so far.) And,
2. On Monday am I going to swing for a homerun (and risk a strikeout) or try for a humble double (and settle for a single if I don’t get the exact pitch I want)? If you know me at all, you probably know what I’m currently thinking.