Marathon pacing question

A little less than a month until my first marathon, and I’m feeling pretty good about how prepared I feel.  But I still have a question.

I know what result I’m going for:  to finish under 4 hours.  That translates into running the whole 26.2 miles at an average pace of 9:09/mile.  When I was training for the recent half marathon, I pretty much tried to run the whole race at one particular pace, and that worked well for that distance.  With only minor variations, I was able to hold the 8:30 pace pretty well over the 13.1 miles.

But the full marathon is another beast altogether.  I’m not sure it’s a great idea to go out running a 9:09 pace from the beginning and just hold it.  But maybe it is, I’m simply not sure.  Without any real input one way or another, this is the plan I have in my head, but I’d love some guidance from my more experienced friends.

  • Miles 1 – 13, try to average 8:50/mile
  • Miles 14 – 20, try to average 9:10/mile
  • Miles 21+, hang on for dear life and average 9:30

If my math is correct, that should have me finishing at just under 4 hours.

Good plan?  Bad plan?  Discuss.

5 thoughts on “Marathon pacing question

  1. In my experience, going out even slightly too fast leads to disaster. If you are shooting to break 4 hours, then I would recommend that you try for a more even pace of 9 min/mile. That will still a 4 minute cushion but will help avoid the crash that sometimes comes from going out a bit too fast.

    Please note that I go out too fast in just about every marathon that I have run so my words are easier to give than to follow.

    Also, the only “good” marathon that I have run – meaning that I did not feel bad at the end – was one with a pace group where I stayed with the pacer and was not tempted to go out faster to put some time in the bank.

    Good Luck.

  2. I wanted to spend some time with the elevation chart before I responded, then when I got a chance to review the chart for Chicago I realized just how unnecessary that was. Holy molly, what a flat course. If that was a cold-weather marathon, it would be a wicked fast course. Great stuff.

    I think that a 3:55:00 is really something to shoot for Sean. Based on your 20-miler, I really think that 3:55-3:58 is where you can reasonably expect to finish and finish well.

    That last 10K is really an unpredictable stretch. It is really the first time you will be running on your Fat Stores and not your Glycogen stores at any time in your life. It effects all runners differently, so until you get there, it is tough to predict.

    All of that said, I would really try to break your race into three 8 mile sections – and then hang on for that final 2 miles, (where mile 26 will be just a blur and you’ll be running it on emotion and adreneline).

    Miles 1-8 – you really want to try to rein yourself in over the first couple mile Sean, and make sure you don’t start “racing” too early. Stay nice, easy and smooth and try to run them right at 8:45-8:50 pace overall. Total time (1 hr. 10 min – 1 hr. 11 min.)

    Miles 9-16 – you should feel your absolute best Sean. This middle 8 for me is my favorite stretch of the marathon. You have shaken loose, the butterflies are gone, the road is open around you and you can cruise. I would try to rattle off 9:00 minute miles and keep ’em coming. Total time (1 hr. 12 min.)

    Miles 17-24 – this is really two sections Sean, 17-20 and 20-24. 17-20 you should still be able to hold 9:00 min./mile pace, but you are going to start feeling like you are working harder. That is O.K., this is where the marathon really begins. From 20-24 you are going to gradually slow. The guys who are telling you to “run a negative split” – a faster second half of the marathon than the first – are delusional. That is incredibly difficult to do, especially for a 1st time Marathoner. Austin will probably be the first time I ever even attempt that and it will be my 6th marathon, third in 9 months.

    Shoot for 9:05, 9:10, 9:12, 9:15, 9:20 over this stretch for miles 20, 21, 22, 23, 24.

    Total time for 17-24 1 hour 13 minutes 02 seconds.

    You are starting mile 25 at 3:36:00 – you need to run two 10:00 minute miles to come in at a really solid goal time – 3:57:30 – right smack dab in the middle of what we’ve been talking about.

    I think if you can put this plan together Sean, you can absolutely hit your target mark, feel good in the latter stages of the race and really enjoy it. If you still feel good at 23 or 24, push a bit – but you will have enough left in the tank at this stage to make a run at 3:55 if the weather and your fuel situation goes like we hope.

    Worst case scenario – if you can’t hold those paces for 20-24, you are still looking at a sub 4:00 hour marathon – which is tremendous for a first effort – absolutely tremendous.

    I would tell you to mark your arms with your 8 mile, 16 mile, 20 mile, 24 mile goals from a total time perspective – and you can then just look down and know if you are running ahead or behind at those marks and adjust accordingly.

    Hope that helps Sean!

  3. I agree with Joe…A negative split your first time around is a crazy thought… I don’t think anyone can explain how physically drained you feel during those last 4-5 miles! That being said, you need to take into consideration the crowds during the race.

    I’ve heard that at Chicago, you really can’t settle into a pace until mile 3 and that one can expect much slower times those first few miles. Just something to think about! That being said, you may need to watch the Garmin a bit closer for the first 10k. I wouldn’t try to make up the lost time due to the crowds all at once… Busting out 8:30 miles for miles 4-6 could be a HUGE mistake! Whew!

    Maybe run with the 3:55 pacer? Build yourself a little extra cushion?

  4. Thank you all for your responses. It’s clear from everyone that going too fast is the biggest risk, and I’m assuming my adrenaline will be pretty high, so a good watch out. I hadn’t taken the crowd into consideration, Madison, so that’s another factor I’ll need to think about. I wonder how the pacers handle the first few crowded miles. I’m having lunch with a friend who has run Chicago a couple times, so if she has any good insight on early pacing while the crowd strings out, I’ll post it back here.

    Thanks again!

  5. Speaking from experience, I would try to average a few seconds per mile faster than the calculation. For example, if 9:09-9:10 gets you a 3:59:59, then I would try to average closer to 9:06. Coming around the corner and realizing you have to sprint to reach a x:59:59 isn’t fun. Believe me. You’ll “lose” some time by not taking all the tangents and keeping this in mind will help.

    From a pacing standpoint, I always try to breakdown 26.2 like this:

    0-3: Just try to find your rhythm. I always try to run these at 5-10 seconds slower than my overall goal. Going out faster than your goal will not help, as you can’t “bank” time in a marathon. If you are going to fade in the end of the marathon, it’s going to add much more time than you could ever bank at the beginning. One way to prevent the fade is to start slightly slower than expected. If you need proof, re-read your DM post on your half marathon splits (

    4-13: Calm and steady. Tuck in behind a group of people and just listen to the chatter. Don’t try to add to the conversation, as this is your first marathon and talking only takes up energy. Just listen, smile and focus on your goal.

    14-18: You are closer to the finish than you are to the start. There’s only one direction to go and that’s forward. Keep the legs going and stick with the group.

    19-23: Pick up motivation from hitting new distances. Each step after 20 miles in a new accomplishment for you. Each step puts you closer to your goal.

    24-26.2: Your body and mind will zone out. Just keep trying to remind yourself of your goal, all the hard runs you completed, the early mornings and late evenings. It’s not over until you cross that line, so don’t lose focus.

    How will you make up the time from the first few miles? They will come naturally. You will find a mile that you zoned out and went a little fast. Just dial it back in and your body will feel like it’s getting a rest. I agree with other comments that you should know a few splits throughout the race to keep an eye on your goal and where you stand.

    You know what you are capable of and you’ve put in the work.

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