"What was The Secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared, to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with the most un-profound and sometimes heart-rendering process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottom of his training shoes."
John L. Parker, Jr.
After Teal Burrell notched an OTQ marathon by finishing the California International Marathon with a time of 2:42:16, I dropped her a line to see if she made any adjustments this cycle that made the difference. Having talked a bit with Teal about her preparation, I regret to report that there was no magic bullet adjustment that enabled her to shed ten minutes off her marathon PR. There was no game changing special sauce; rather, Teal’s hard training worked more like a marinade, the seasoning of which sunk in over the span of many cycles and many years. While Teal was unable to identify any particular adjustment that made all the difference, it appears to me that there is nonetheless much to be learned from her experience.
CIM was Teal’s 12th marathon and if, in my largely uninformed opinion, I had to point to a single factor that yielded her terrific result, it would be the large volume of marathon-specific work that she put in during the last few years. During this cycle, and the handful that came before, Teal regularly worked in 10-14 miles @MGP into long runs of 20-22 miles total. It’s been my experience that the adaptations necessary to reach one’s potential at the marathon distance develop more gradually than any other distance event. Over the course of years, Teal became very efficient at running that 6:10-6:20 per mile pace. Notably, Teal’s personal bests at the half marathon (1:19:29) and ten mile (60:19) distance, while impressive, pale in comparison to her performance at CIM. To me, this disparity underscores the fact that the half marathon is a completely different event than the full. While a half marathon may serve as a great tuneup opportunity, it requires a completely different type of fitness than the full marathon – Teal focused on MGP at the expense of the shorter events and in the process became a great marathoner.
Although Teal regularly worked 14-mile MGP segments into her long runs, she turned it up a notch this cycle with three big runs that included long marathon effort segments: 10 miles @6:21 pace for 18 total in early October; 13 miles @6:18 pace for 20 total three weeks later; and 16 miles @6:12 pace for 22 total three weeks after that. While the last of these runs was the longest effort at goal pace that she had undertaken, it would not seem that extending a tempo segment by one or two miles would make a significant physiological difference. But Teal believes that grinding out 16 at 6:12 pace – the pace she averaged at CIM – gave her a big psychological boost. She explained that extending the tempo segment by three miles on each successive long run made the 16-mile segment achievable. And she thought that if she could jump from 13 to 16, then in the next workout she could just as easily have went from 16 to 19. And if she could throw down 19 miles @MGP in a workout, then 26.2 miles at that pace on D-Day was achievable. Big Canova-style MGP runs are becoming popular with the GRC marathon corps – Evan Jurkovich, for example, got in 16 @MGP on Beach Drive shortly before his breakthrough at Twin Cities.
Aside from incremental increases in the MGP segments, one lesson to be learned from Teal’s experience is not to be wedded to an exact pace on goal pace runs. You’ll notice that during the first two runs, she was not afraid to dial the pace back to ten to twelve seconds SLOWER than goal pace, which allowed her to finish the entire segment. In my estimation, the lesson to be learned is that, if your goal pace feels a little sharp at the start of one of these goal pace runs and you are forced to choose between speed and volume, then go with volume. It’s about the volume, suka! Rather than sticking slavishly to 6:12 pace and flaming out after only a few miles, Teal dialed it back a notch and stuck it out for the entire segment and the resulting workout laid the foundation to work her way down to 6:12s. The other lesson is to accept the fact that MGP will feel difficult in a training setting and that you will not be able to notch your goal pace each and every workout. Teal’s first attempt at a goal pace run this cycle ended in disaster – she couldn’t even sustain the pace for a few miles – but she was able to get back on the horse the next week and complete her workout. MGP feels hard and you won’t be able to sustain it every week but if you can get in about three big runs, as Teal did, then you’ll be fine.
It’s also notable that, in addition to the goal-pace work, Teal got to BCC almost every Wednesday over the course of the last few cycles for long repeats. The speed work that Teal did during marathon training did not make her into a sub-17 5K runner, but it wasn’t intended to. The marahoner just needs to accept that marathon-focused work will make it very difficult to run well at other distance. The ability to delay gratification is perhaps the most important attribute that a marathoner can have and Teal was able to persevere with the track work knowing that the benefits would materialize far in the future, if ever. And eventually Teal’s time on the oval gave her the strength and turnover to sustain a slower pace for a longer distance.
I’ve heard many a marathon finisher utter the following words: "Things went so well this cycle, I just don’t know what happened out there today." I myself have been such a declarant on more than one occasion. But Teal’s experience tells us that there is not a linear relationship between hard training for any particular cycle and the goal marathon at the end of that cycle. The same type of preparation that preceded Teal’s 2:42 at CIM had also yielded a 2:52 in Boston 2013 and a 2:58 in Boston 2014. The relatively disappointing results at Boston laid the groundwork. At CIM, Teal saw that she had a rare opportunity to run on a fast course on a good day and, to her credit, she went for it. But on every Patriot’s Day, the medical tent on Kenmore Square is chock full of well-prepared runners who set an aggressive yet achievable pace. So why did it all come together for Teal on that particular day? I’m not entirely sure. But I can say that without all the hard work put in over the span of the years that led up to her PR, the story would have ended differently.