When people asked me which race I was doing yesterday in Duluth, the full or half marathon, competitors and non-competitor alike gave me a look when I told them I was running just the half. It can only be described as a look of reproach. A look that meant, ‘oh, poor you, you must not be tough enough for the whole shebang”. At first I thought I was imagining it, but after a dozen instances, I determined that “the look” was unmistakable. To those that inquired further, I explained that I was running the USA Half Marathon Champs; only then did the look of contempt turn to respect.
One of the things I notice with endurance athletes is that when it comes to racing, longer is often viewed as better. People think that going longer will make you tougher, fitter, more esteemed and an overall better athlete. I challenge this way of thinking. While I certainly am a fan of the longer events, I have done countless Ironmans and marathons (I have yet to delve into the ultra-realm), shorter races offer huge advantages in terms of speed, recovery, longevity, and the ability to learn things that can be applied to the longer races.
Here is an example. I am planning on running the Twin Cities Marathon in October. My first goal is to qualify for the 2016 Marathon Olympic Trials, which will require me to run under 2:43.00. My secondary goal is to break 2:40.
Running a marathon at that pace requires not only endurance, but a certain amount of speed and perfect pacing. Historically, I can run within 2:30-3 minutes of my open half marathon time in a marathon. In order to run sub-2:40, that translates to a 1:16.59 open half marathon. When I started the season, my half marathon PB was 1:18.22, much too slow to run under 2:40.
Three weeks ago, I lowered that time to 1:16.45, and yesterday at the USA Half Marathon Championships, I shaved off another 36 seconds running a 1:16.09 (good enough for 24th overall and 2nd masters), putting me in a much better position to achieve a sub 2:40 time.
You may be wondering how I was able to drop 36 seconds so quickly after setting a PR just three weeks earlier. The answer is in pacing and starting the race with a specific strategy.
I carefully analyzed my mile splits from San Diego and determined that my first 4 miles were too erratic and slow compared to the rest of the race. I knew I needed to run those miles faster and come closer to 36 flat for the first 10k in Duluth. You can see from the table below, at the Half champs I ran the first 5k much quicker than in San Diego. The middle miles were at a similar pacing, but then I brought the last 5k home faster.
Miles RnR San Diego Half Champs 1 5:41 5:45 2 5:56 5:48 3 5:49 5:46 4 6:03 5:52 5 5:46 5:50 6 5:49 5:44 7 5:47 5:54 8 5:46 5:51 9 5:55 5:45 10 5:46 5:47 11 5:50 5:43 12 5:33 5:40 13 5:43 5:38 5k 18:16 17:56 10k 36:30 36:12 10 miles 58:49 58:19 Last 5k 17:56 17:50
Closing out my races strong has been an issue for me both in the half and full marathon. I just couldn’t quite hold my pace all the way to the finish line resulting in a noticeable fade in pace. This can be a goal killer in a marathon where the pace can drop off precipitously (at the LA marathon in March my pace slowed 30 seconds/mile on the last 8k!). In the last two half marathons I made closing out the race fast a top priority, even if meant sacrificing some speed in the middle of the race. As you can see from the table, in both races, my last 5k was the fastest of the race.
This in depth and tedious analysis shows that racing shorter distances, whether for running or triathlon, is an important tool for honing pacing and strategies for longer races. I view shorter races as a dress rehearsal for longer races and extrapolate the lessons learned from the shorter races to the longer ones. Screwing up a race plan in a short race has few repercussions; screw up a race plan in a long race and you are, well, screwed. The more practice you have at executing a race plan, the less likely you are to make mistakes.
I did not touch on the nutritional aspects or maintaining bike watts, as those are their own posts. But, the same lessons do apply. Shorter races are a perfect time to hone your nutrition and figure out what works when your body is under extreme duress and what makes you puke. And, learning how to dial in proper wattage in a short race will be beneficial in executing a good bike ride during a long race.