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There’s a lot of talk these days about what it’s going to take for someone to run the first sub-two hour marathon. I think it’s an interesting topic, particularly the science and training principles behind the discussion, but the two-hour marathon itself doesn’t have much relevance to me or my running.

I’m a slow-ass runner who doesn’t like cross-training, and doesn’t do speed work. I just like to run, although occasionally I enter races to see and experience new things. My goal for racing is usually to not blow up and just finish in one piece (i.e., without having done any serious or lasting damage to myself). If I’ve run a race course before, then I might choose to set a goal of running it better than the last time – although that usually means running it more comfortably and evenly and happily than before, rather than running it more quickly.

My next big race is the Umstead 100, which happens to be my first attempt at the hundred mile distance. The cut-off is 30 hours, so I’ll be ecstatic if I finish in 29:59. In fact, I’d be happier with a 29:59 finish where I don’t have a catastrophic crash and burn (is that possible in a person’s first 100? Can anyone reassure me that such a thing is possible?), rather than a 29:45, a 29:30, or even a 29:00 flat finish in which I covered the first 50 miles in 10 hours then death march the remaining 50.

I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a solid pacing strategy for a distance that I have no experience with, but a 30 hour finish equates to an average pace of 18:00 per mile. Obviously I won’t be moving 100% of the time (when the aid station, bathroom and other stops are taken into account), so my actual moving pace will be less than that; say perhaps 16:00/mile. And I know that I’m almost certain to slow down as the race goes on, even though I plan to start off slowly.

My assumption is that self-care and running efficiency are going to be the keys to me completing 100 miles, much more so than how fast I can cover the first few hours of the race. So a training approach that builds up my system to run 10 or 20 miles quickly is probably not as valuable as an approach that would have me run that same distance 10-15% slower, if I could do so at an energy savings of 20-30%.

I don’t think “banking time” works for me in a long race, so I’d rather bank energy.

I think about how plenty of middle- and back-of-the pack marathoners get caught up in the excitement of a race, run the first 10k too quickly, then find that the wheels come off later and they’re not able to maintain their goal pace — and they give back far more time than they “gained” by running quickly during the first quarter of the race. I’d like to avoid this type of situation with my 100 miler. I don’t want to run the first 25 miles so quickly that the rest of the race is more of a struggle than it otherwise needs to be. So how can I formalize my training in a way that really makes a deliberate effort to focus on covering distance efficiently?

The five-hour marathon.

Here’s the training strategy I’m going to take during the next couple months: I’m going to see how efficient I can become at covering a marathon distance in five hours. I want to try to answer the question, “what’s the best way for me to cover that distance in that time (and really trying to stick as closely as possible to 5 hours) while expending as little energy as possible?”

A five hour marathon works out to 11:26 per mile average pace. There are countless ways to maintain that average, only one of which is to actually run each mile at an 11:26 pace. I know at Umstead I’m going to run some, and I’m going to walk some. But at what paces, and in what combinations? And how much am I going to slow down as time goes on? Is my slow-downs going to level off at some minimum pace (I assume so), and what is that pace?

Endless spreadsheet manipulations and formula constructions, as much as I like doing them, aren’t going to answer those questions with any confidence. I need to experiment by actually putting my feet on the ground.

I chose the five-hour marathon training target in part because it’s a nice round number. But more to the point, the four hour marathon would be too fast for a training run, while a six-hour marathon might be too slow (although I’m still open to seeing what it feels like). It’ll also let me get enough time on my feet so that I can start to feel the effects of fatigue, but not so much that it requires significant time off before I can run again.

My intention is to set a 5.25 loop or out-and-back course in my neighborhood, starting and ending at my house, then run a five lap workout of that course at least twice per month, trying to come as close as possible to doing each lap in an hour. This will force me to hold back in the beginning, and hopefully leave me feeling relatively unscathed by the end.

Using the same course for each of these workouts will allow me to compare my effort levels with different walk/run combinations. Starting and ending at my house means that I don’t have to worry much about hydration or refueling, and the five laps in five hours structure makes it easy to focus on pacing.

I think it might initially be tricky to follow walk/run combinations that get me to the 5.25 miles in one hour for every lap, so assuming I’m erring on the side of going too fast, whenever I reach the end of the lap before one hour expires I’ll simply walk the rest of the hour. Just as I’d consider a 5:15 time to be a workout fail, so too would be a 4:45.

The ultimate goal is to perform the distance in the specified time and feel like I could do the distance again the next day, or even right away that same day. After all, I’m going to try to do (almost) four back-to-back marathons at Umstead. Be able to complete the first one or two without taking too much out of the tank seems to be essential to completing the event.

I was hoping to do my first five-hour marathon workout tomorrow, but the sidewalks and paths in my neighborhood are in bad shape (I did 5 miles this morning, and found the ground conditions to be horrible), and the forecast isn’t looking good:

TuesdayI consider myself a little tougher than the average person, but I’m not tough enough to do a five hour training run in those temps…