Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sub 3 Baby !!!

A Bit of History

"Sub 3" has been a goal for a very long time.

I may not have run my first marathon until 2009, but I'd been telling people ever since my teen years I'd run a sub 3 hour marathon one day.

It was a magical threshold.  My '4 minute mile'.

Laughable, since I didn't have a clue what was involved.

I remember telling a work colleague in Chicago when I was 32 that I thought I could do it.  He actually had run a sub 3, and I can still remember the incredulous look on his face.  With very good reason.  I couldn't run more than a few miles at the time.

Looking back - that has been a source of embarrassment.  Something that's helped drive me.  One of many incidents.  One day I needed to back up my boast.  One day I needed to show that it wasn't idle talk.

I finally started training for my first marathon when I hit 40, and scraped the Boston qualifier in Chicago 2009.  Although I needed the extra seconds.

3 hours 20 mins 23 secs.

I now realized how tough it would be to go sub 3.   Maybe I've left this too late.  I felt I could run faster, but didn’t know how.

2 months later I ran CIM.  3 hours 17 mins

I ‘discovered’ a group of runners online at Runners World.  That provided the ‘support group’ that I didn’t know I needed.  It was the best thing that could have happened.  Turned out to be a lifestyle changer too.

Started following a real plan – Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, although I ignored the pace guidelines.  Just train harder and faster.  Stupid.  I got injured before my first boston marathon.

3 hours 45 mins

Painful.  But a good lesson.  Not invincible.

Learn.  Train smarter.  Train slower.  Listen to your body.

Chicago 2010 in the heat.  3.08

Validation.  9 minute PR in sub-optimal conditions.  Maybe this could actually happen.  I might actually be able to run that sub 3.

Attempt 1.  Boston 2011.  Fail.  3.05.  I didn’t respect the course enough.  Ran too fast early for my form and the last 6 miles ate me up.  But I remembered.  I learned.

Attempt 2.  St George 2011.  Fail.  3.04.  Wilted in the heat.

Attempt 3.  Tucson 2011.  Fail.  3.09.  Running New York as a training run the previous month - 3 marathons in just over 2 months.  Paid the toll.

Something needs to change.   Try a different training plan – Brad Hudson's book.

Attempt 4.  London 2012.  Fail.   3.06

The summer of 2012 my performances have really deteriorated.  Brad Hudson is based in Boulder – show up and start to run with his group.  Some amazing athletes.

Realize that Brad only coaches the elites – but 2 of his elites offer their own training.  Start working with Benita.

Attempt 5.  Berlin.  Fail.  3.04.  This time though – something was different.  I was gaining confidence.  I cramped and lost 2 minutes late.  I’d have run 3.02.  I was getting closer.

Attempt 6.  Tucson 2012.  Fail.  3.03.   Fell apart late again.

6 times I'd gone for it.  6 times I'd come up short.

I thought I should be able to run sub 3 – but I still didn't really believe it.  When things got hard late – which they inevitably do – I gave myself the excuse that I couldn't do it, and ‘let’ it get away.

Benita and James have formed their own group with the Boulder Center of Sports Medicine.  BCSM.  Not exactly catchy, but a very supportive tightknit group.

Benita tweaked my plan, and I start doing a true mid-week speed session.  Pushed on by the other runners who’ve nearly all run sub 3.  I realized I belonged.  Realized I can hang with these people.

Run several races and set big PRs, taking down runners who’ve run well below sub 3.

Crush training runs.  Faster than I've run before.  Confidence abounds.

Boston 2013

One of my favourite quotes is from Michelangelo:

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. "

The most memorable performances for me have been from friends where they've come out and stated their goals ahead of time.  TeamCam in Chicago with his "Sub 3 or over 4" mantra.  Zab's "balls on the table" in Chicago.  Bird and his sub 2.30 in Boston with the cannoli.

Put a goal out like that - and there's no place to hide.

Despite the previous failures, I wanted to embrace the sub 3 target.  I printed it on my shirt.  I made it clear that was the only goal.

But this time I believed it.

Still, I did my best to sabotage it.

My mind is my worst enemy.  Some of my friends can sleep well the night before the race – even oversleeping.  Most can sleep well the week before the race.  I can’t do either.

For 2 to 3 weeks before, my sleep is miserable.  It’s been this way since I ran Chicago in 2009.  Invariably I wake up in the night and my mind starts to race.  Quickly followed by my heartbeat.  By race week I’m lucky to get 4-5 hours / night, and that’s even taking sleeping aids.

As a result I always feel like crap by race day.  I think that likely costs me several minutes over my potential.

Talking to Benita the night before the race – she told me that was probably the case – but my potential was 2.55 or better.  So even losing those few minutes – I was still going to run sub 3.

I believed her.

Race Day

The temps in the 30s in the village hadn’t materialized.  It felt warm walking from the village to the start with Chad and Matt, but really nothing to complain about.

Which didn’t stop Chad and me from complaining about it.

Still, compared to the previous year - this was a no excuses kind of day.

I was in the 5th corral and had planned to run with a friend Jim in the same corral, and hoped Kevin and David in the corral behind would be able to catch up.  Run as a group.

Jim and I moved to the back of the corral, and we could see Kevin waving 15 yards behind.  We agreed to run down the left side of the road so he could catch us.

With a minute until the gun, I chugged gel number 1.  I was also going for a gel PR today too.  I was starting with 8.  My stomach felt a little heavy – I think I’d overdone the bagels that morning, so I was concerned the gels wouldn’t be absorbed as quickly as I needed them to be.

I was starting the race with a 20 oz bottle of water to try to minimize my general hydration suckiness.  I was also taking salt caps.  I took 2 of those with water.  Partly for the salt, and partly because I believed they help offset the acidity of the gels and aided the stomach to absorb the contents more quickly.

Up ahead a small gun sound, and we were off.

Slowly.  We walked for several minutes towards the start line, and 30 yards shy we began jogging.  Watches and garmins were pushed, and it was on.

All that training, all those miles.  All those years.

3 hours to suck it up and get it done.

Less than 3 hours actually.

The first half of the first mile in Boston shelves downhill.  With all the pent up excitement and crowd noise, it’s very easy to take off too fast.  That’s the rookie mistake.  I’d made it before, and was determined not to this time.

Once again I was using Greg Maclin’s pace band.  I’d optimistically printed out a band for 2.55, but there was some method to the madness.  Normally I’m a ‘fader’ over the last 6 miles.  In the pacing I’d set those to be my fastest miles.  I figured that way I was really going out on 2.57 or 2.58 pace, and if I felt good at the end – I’d be able to hammer it home.  My training had suggested I could definitely run 2.55, but marathon PRs are not run in training.   On a course like Boston, with the hills towards the end, nothing can be taken for granted.

Jim and I ran together, no Kevin yet.  First mile split.


Right in range, but now we need to start to pick it up,  It was hard.  Starting towards the back of a corral of people who'd qualified at around 3.04, meant we had to pick our way through gaps.  At the same time we didn't want to be one of 'those' people sprinting down the side of the road to overtake.  We'd be seeing those people later.

Kids lined both sides of the road as always looking for high fives.  This time I tried to minimize them.  In previous years I'd got caught up in the excitement and high fived the whole way the first few miles.  Energy lost.  Conserve.


First water stop.  Despite running with a 20 oz bottle, I decided to drink at every stop.  I was already warm, so I also dumped water over my head at every stop too.  This was something I remember from TeamCam's Chicago 2010 race report.  I may look like a drowned rat in photos, but I knew I was a cold weather runner, and wanted to try and keep myself as cool as I could.

Jim was taking all the tangents, whereas I was trying to stick to the left side of the road for Kevin to find me.  We'd run together, then Jim would peel towards the right for a curve, and then join up again.


Gaps started to appear and I noticed the bibs of runners around us were now in the 3xxx and 2xxx range, so we were now with others running at or under sub 3 hour pace.

Through the 5K in 21.12, once again marvelling how persistence and a good training plan can help.

A little over 4 years ago. 21 mins would have been a 5K PR.


4 miles in now.  Time to take a gel.  I'd experimented in training using caffeinated gels for the first time.  I had 4 with caffeine and 4 without.  While the taste of the caffeinated versions was slightly bitter, I felt that they gave me more of an energy lift.  I took one with caffeine.


5 miles.  Still running with Jim, although we'd split up and regrouped multiple times as each picked our own path and tangents.  WHERE IS KEVIN ?  My legs were starting to feel a little heavy, which was worrying.

Too early for that.

I mentioned it to Jim and he said his felt the same way.  Something about the undulating nature of Boston seems to do that.  Fortunately I'd started training sessions this cycle with heavy legs and had had great runs, so I had the confidence that I knew I could overcome.

Once again confidence preventing the negative thoughts from becoming a factor.


My friend David from Denver suddenly appeared.  Bouncing along and running very easily.  I introduced him to Jim, and then I ran with David as we chatted.  That was the last time I saw Jim during the race.  Despite starting behind me, David was clearly in good form.  His lifetime PR is in the 2.40s and I felt like he was pulling me along faster than I wanted to go.  After passing the 10K point in 41.49, I told him I'd let him go.


Through 7 miles.  Within 10 seconds of the goal time for this point on the pace band.  I was running by feel, and really just using the pace band for confirmation.  I wasn't getting caught up in trying to hit each split.  A time of 2.55 would be great, but it was going sub 3 that was the main goal.  Other than the heavy legs I was feeling pretty good.


Another gel.  A normal one this time.


More water dumped over my head.  Very consistent splits here.


Where the heck is Kevin ?  10 miles in - I'm guessing he's gone past me by this point, or is having a bad day.  He has the same pace band.  Surely we would have met by now ?  I was running solo.  My legs were feeling heavier and I felt like I needed a boost.  I thought I'd be running with friends the whole way so wasn't planning on running with music.  Since I was using my spiel belt to keep salt caps in, at the last minute in the village I'd stuck my ipod shuffle and some lightweight headphones in too.  I fished them out, and managed to get the cord threaded under my shirt and to my ears.  On came the music and I transported myself back to my training runs.  I'd had a 16 mile effort with 4 x 4 mile sets, finishing well under marathon pace.  16 miles to go here too - I already knew I could do it.  I'd take the headphones in and out during the race, torn between wanting to hear the crowds and experience the race, but also wanting to lose myself in the music and ignore the fatigue in my legs.


11 miles.  15 to go.  Break that into chunks.  Think about the milestones ahead.  The scream tunnel in Wellsley.  The half way point.  The fire station turn.  The hills culminating in Heart Break.  Crossing the train tracks.  The Citgo Sign and Fenway Park.  Cannoli Corner, and then Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston.


And there was the scream tunnel.  I manouvered my way to the left of the road so I wouldn't get knocked over by runners veering over last minute for a snog.  I checked out the signs and enjoyed the distraction.


Through the half in 1.27.49.  Over 2 minutes in the 'bank'.  I knew that wasn't the way to think about it - but other than the heavy legs, I was feeling good, and it was comforting to think I could run a 1.32 second half, and go under 3 hours.

Think of friends and family back in Denver, friends in Chicago, home in England.  I knew they'd be tracking, seeing the splits come up.  Wondering it they thought I was going too fast.  I certainly didn't.

Still - the second half at Boston is a lot harder than the first half.  Heartbreak Hill had lived up to it's name last time for me.  In my mind I pictured a monstorous steep hill.  Would those 2 minutes be enough ?


Just ticking along.


In my mind knowing every mile under 6.51 pace was getting me closer to sub 3.


And now we were into the hills.  Run by effort.  Expecting to get splits around or over 7.00 pace.  That's perfectly acceptable.


Feeling good.  Just over 4 miles until the hills are done.  28 or so minutes.  Then it's mostly downhill.  I really have got this.  Wow.


Was that hill number 2 or 3 ?  I don't remember.  Hell - I'm really not noticing these hills.  They certainly don't seem to be as steep or long as I remember.

The splits I'm posting here were adjusted post race to account for the extra 0.25 miles my garmin measured.  At the time, each was displayed as 4-5 seconds quicker, so I was seeing miles in the 6.40s and 6.50s as I ran through the hills.


Really ?  6.43 ?  I'm 19 miles in.  I know Heartbreak will be coming up in just over a mile.  I'm feeling remarkable good.  These hills aren't so bad.


Through 20.  Now I want to see Heartbreak.  The hills have been pretty easy.  I'm realizing the mind has a big impact on how they're perceived.  Last time they were mountains, this time they were merely hills.  I'm actually looking forward to see how Heartbreak would appear.

And there it is.  Really ?  That's actually nothing bad.  Not nearly as steep as I remembered.  It looks like a hill I run every day near my house, just longer.  Run by feel, run by effort, once you get to the top - it's mostly downhill to the end.


Ok - that's it.  Over the top of hearbreak.  This was the plan all along.  Get here with something left in the tank, try and pick things up, and finish strong.

Evaluate.  I do feel pretty good, but I also remember that I've felt good with 5 or 6 miles before.  Still too early to push it.


This is starting to hurt a little bit.  Not like in previous races, but I'm not running as easily as I was earlier.  No shit Richard.  Remember the sign you saw in the first half.

"If Running A Marathon was Easy - it would be called your Mom"

That had me chuckling for a good minute.

For the first time I'm noticing a few people are overtaking me.  Crossing 22 miles I see I've got 31 minutes to go until 3 hours.  4.2 miles in 31 minutes.  That's just under 7.30 pace.  Make sure you run every mile under 7.30 pace and you've got this.


I feel a slight tightness in one of my hamstrings and remember in Berlin where I had big cramps the last few miles.  They came out of the blue.  Take nothing for granted was the lesson I'd learned there.  Everything can change in an instant.

2.55 was out, so I decide to 'settle for a sub 3'.  lol - that's not something I thought I'd ever write.  I'm still feeling reasonably good.  I know I could probably pick up the pace slightly but don't want to run the risk of pushing things too hard and cramping.  I recollect a race report from an English friend Tom in London where he had the very same issue at the end.

This running community that I'm a part of is amazing.  Learning for each other.  Remembering anecdotes.  Now my stated sub 3 goal was forcing me to stay focussed.  I didn't want to have to explain to my friends how I'd let a golden chance slip.  So many had told me they thought I would finally do it.  Don't want to disappoint.


There's a headwind ?  Ok good.  So no one can put an asterik next to this sub 3.  Counting down the miles.  Running within myself, but definitely not easily.


Ticking along.  Last hill at the Cisco sign.  I remembered that from last time.  That had been miserable and unexpected then.  Now I was ready for it.

See the 25.2 mile point with the clock.  One Mile To Go.  8.30 minutes to run a mile.  I’ve definitely got this.  Can you say 'Sub 3 Baby'.  I can.  And I do.  SUB 3 BABY !!

A quarter of a mile to Cannoli Corner.  A group of friends who weren't running meet at a pre-arranged spot at mile 25.5 and hand out cannolis and beers to our group.  I'd fully anticipated grabbing a cannoli for my finish line picture, but now I wasn't so sure.  The thought of running 3/4 of a mile holding that made me gag slightly.  I'd already managed to get down 7 gels.  500 calories of cream and fat wasn't particularly appetizing right now...

Get over to the left of the road.  Up ahead searching the crowd for my friends.  Finally - there they are - yell - they yell back - arms raised, flying by like an airplane shouting 'sub 3 baby'.  Great boost.  I'm able to pick up the pace.

Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.  Oh yeah.


And there's the finish line.  I got this.  Reflect a little on how long this journey has been.  Much longer than most people realize, from the days of those naive promises.   I wonder what my time will be.  I'm guessing 2.57.xx, but it doesn't matter.  Point at my shirt and yell 'Sub 3 Baby' again.  And over the line.

6.34 for last 0.2 miles

2.58.31.  Really ?  Wow.  Cruising in like that I lost more than I realized.  It shows how some slower miles at the end can really make a dent in the time.

But it really doesn't matter.  SUB 3 BABY !!!

I always thought I could.  I didn't realize how long the journey would be.  But I got it.

Thank-you everyone.  I definitely didn't do this by myself.  Many of you helped.  From tips I've gleamed from race reports, from inspiration I've gathered from your performances, from words or comments in person or online.  It all played a part.

The next day, I reached out to my friend from my working days in Chicago.  Social media is a great thing.  We hadn't spoken to each other for more than 12 years.  I thanked him for his motivation.  I wanted to make it right.  I finally had.

After a race, I always analyze what happened to learn for future cycles.

This was a novel experience.  Normally I'm trying to figure out what I need to tweak to improve.  This time I wanted to try to understand what had changed that allowed me to run 5 minutes quicker than I had in December, on what was definitely a harder course.

In a nutshell, I think it was the speed work, confidence and coaching.

Adding true speed on the track once / week - gave me a surprising increase in both speed and strength.  I also believe - that change of pace helped contribute to a 6 lb weight loss.

I didn't run any more miles.  I didn't change my diet.  But I lost 6 lbs.  That's a lot less weight to carry 26.2 miles.

Confidence.  This time I knew I could do it.  This stemmed from the running improvements, but also my running group and my coach.  The mind plays a big part in a marathon.  For me it had been one of the weaker aspects in previous races.

Instead of doing straight marathon paced runs, I was doing runs where the pace changed.  I'd run multiple blocks of 3-4 miles, the first block slower than MP, then the next at MP, then the final set faster.  This gave me the confidence to know I could pick up the pace and run faster, even when my legs were tired and heavy.  This confidence was very useful in Boston.

I'm not sure what my goal is now.  I do believe I can run faster in the marathon.  Sub 2.55 perhaps.  I'd also like to get my half time below 1.23 to 'qualify' for New York.  Improve the 5K and 10K times.  Complete the Majors 'again'.  Run some 'destination' races for fun.

But if I didn't run another step, I'm going to be satisfied now.  

I'm always going to be able to say I ran that sub 3 marathon.  


And while purposefully not mentioning it here - obviously the joyous nature of the day turned very sad later on with the bombings.  Many of my friends were closer than I was, many impacted far more profoundly.  It took some time before I felt I could truly 'enjoy' the accomplishment, and 3 weeks before I felt comfortable publishing this.

Like many, I wasn't planning on running Boston in 2014, but now I think I will.  Show 'them' that you can't take this away from us.  From the runners, from the supporters, from the people of Boston.

I read a quote on facebook at the time that rang very true.

"If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target"


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog post. THANK YOU!! I am training for a sub-3 marathon and often question myself, wondering if I'll even be able to. After a "good training run", I always am confident that it is possible, and that 2015 will be my year to do it, but as you know, the mind has a way of making you doubt yourself. So, thank you for sharing this. Truly amazing!

    1. thanks Bethany. It's amazing how much of it is mental. Once the hurdle has 'gone' - you can run so much more freely. I've done it 5 times now - and when I look back at the times I failed previously - a lot of that was the 'weight' of the mental pressure. It really is mostly mental. Best of luck to you !!

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  3. I've run the Colorado Marathon twice now with a goal of 3:05 and both times I break down right around the elementary school at mile 21-22. I can blame not running long enough in training, illnesses, etc but other than that my pacing and races of shorter distances indicated that I should be able to run around 3hrs. Do you have any tips? I think I fall into the category where the mental side is taking over in those late miles and then my body responds to the negativity by feeling the pain and falling apart. What's the best way to break through this mental wall?

    1. I think it's consistency and miles. My shorter distance times suggested sub 3 for a few years before I was able to get there. It takes longer to get that endurance / aerobic adaptions to fulfill what the calculators suggest. It took me a few cycles before I realized that you could run those extra miles slower - better to train slower on the GA runs, so that you're recovered to smash out the quality runs.

      btw - if you saw the next race report, you'll see I ran Colorado too. Those last 5 or so miles on the bike path are miserable... I faded big time there. So maybe try a different course. The R&R Denver is a decent course. If you want to get a 'boost' - the Revel race here in July definitely would help. 4000+ feet of elevation drop !!

      Good luck. I'm sure you'll get there if you keep working. Persistence was the key.