Marine Corps Marathon: Post-Race Analysis

If you read my MCM recap, you’ll know that race day didn’t exactly turn out the way I had expected it to.  My main goal was to beat my debut marathon (CIM, 4:32:39), but I was hoping to finish in the range of 4:10-4:15.  Instead, I finished MCM in 4:33:57, more than a minute slower than CIM.  Considering that I ran the second half 13 minutes slower than the first, I obviously hit the wall, but how exactly did that happen?  And how can I avoid doing that in the future?  I came up with a bunch of lessons that I wanted to note for future reference, and maybe they’ll be helpful to others as well.  Time to take the lemons and make some lemonade!

But before we get to that, let’s start off on positive note and review the things I did right/went well:

  • I finished! Without landing in a medical tent or with any significant injuries!
  • I dressed accordingly and comfortably.
  • No bathroom breaks.
  • I didn’t go out too fast in the first 2 miles (10:17, 10:40) and I didn’t dip below 9:36 except for one downhill mile (9:23).  So even if I ran the first half too fast, it wasn’t like I went crazy (i.e., below half marathon pace).
  • No chafing or blisters.
  • The weather was perfect.  I can’t take credit for that, but it’s worth noting.
  • Even though I didn’t beat my CIM time, I finished in a higher percentile in all categories (age group, gender, and overall) at MCM.  At CIM, I finished in the top 51% in my age group, 48% among females, and 56% overall.  For MCM, I came in in the top 37% in my age group, 35% among females, and 45% overall.

Yay for victories, large and small!  Next, the lessons I learned from my MCM experience:

1. Consider all facets of a course and how it might affect you on race day.
When looking at the course map/info, I was mostly thinking about elevation and perhaps spectators or sights in various sections.  Things I didn’t consider, and really should have, were:
Number of turns: more turns = increased possibility of not running tangents = increased overall distance.  I ended up going over 26.2 miles by 0.27 miles.  Not too bad, but not ideal either.
The section of overlap at mile 25.5: I probably should’ve been more psychologically prepared for this.  Instead of viewing it as a “why am I here again?”, I could’ve thought of it as motivation to finish faster.  Regardless, this section demonstrated very clearly why point-to-point courses are usually preferable.
Out-and-backs: similarly psychologically defeating to the overlapping segment.  MCM has several out-and-back sections and areas where you see runners heading in the opposite direction.  When I was tired, seeing those other runners made me even more fatigued.
The crowds: I had expected crowding to be a factor in the first couple of miles, but what I didn’t count on was how the crowds would slow me down at every water stop, even at the ones where I didn’t take fluids.  I also didn’t expect the mental fatigue of being surrounded by so many people for so long.  The best analogy I can think of is when you’re driving on the highway and there’s a ton of traffic, but not so much traffic that it’s still moving at or near the speed limit.  You have to maintain a high level of awareness because you’re traveling a high speed around a lot of other vehicles.  This is what it was like to run in a huge marathon with tens of thousands of runners.  Not only was I mentally exhausted from keeping myself in check, but I was also tired from keeping tabs on everyone around me.  I was careful not to trip or kick anyone, or get hit in the head by the guy carrying the giant American flag on a 7-foot pole (there were quite a few people at MCM who ran with flags).

2. Pace by feel, not by time.
My plan was to start off the first 2 miles in the 10-10:30/mile range, run the first half at 9:45/mile pace, and then assess how I felt and go from there.  I was so obsessed with PR-ing and running a specific time goal that I didn’t allow myself to deviate from the plan… which, considering all of the above under Lesson 1, should’ve made me wary about following an exact plan.  Plus, it was my first time at MCM — it was silly in retrospect to set firm time goals for a course I’ve never run before.  Almost immediately after the race, I regretted wearing a watch, not only because I became dependent on it to set my pace early on in the race, but also I became really depressed looking at my splits in the last 10K.
It’s happened to me too many times this year (Oakland Half, SF 2nd Half, MCM) where I’ve been too reliant on my watch and end up running into serious trouble in the last 3-6 miles.  For my next road race, I’ve resolved to ditch my Garmin and practice pacing by feel.  Regardless of the outcome, I think I will enjoy it more knowing that I raced smart.

3. (Related) Time-based goals should not be the measure of success.
Yes, it’s awesome to aim for a PR and actually get it.  However, I was so focused on setting a PR that when the wheels fell off, I spent way too much mental energy on the fact that I *wasn’t* getting my goal, instead of being proactive and seeing what I could do to make the best out of the situation.  It’s easy to say, “Whatever happens on race day, remember to enjoy it!”  However, during the race, when you’re suffering, “enjoying” the race seems as difficult as actually finishing it.  Thinking in advance about what “enjoying” the race would mean to me would have been helpful (see Lesson 4).  Also, if I had focused on running a smarter race (see Lesson 2) instead of a PR, I probably would have been just as satisfied because I probably wouldn’t have bonked, and bonking is one of the most depressing things ever.

4. Have a contingency plan; be proactive. 
Since I had relatively smooth pacing at CIM and didn’t hit the wall, I didn’t anticipate any problems for MCM.   What I learned last Sunday is that marathons are unpredictable in almost every way — just because I was able to handle 26.2 miles relatively well previously didn’t mean I would be able to repeat that performance.  So, in retrospect, I really should have decided on a few strategies in case I bonked.  Some ideas right off the top of my head:
– Don’t walk when other people start walking.  It’s like my mind decides that I have permission to walk when I see everyone else doing it.  I need to override that.
– If I must walk, implement a specific walk/run interval and stick to it.
– If all else is fails, just try to have fun.  In a spectator-filled race like this, I could’ve spent those last miles in Crystal City looking at spectators, giving kids high-fives, and smiling a little instead of putting my head down and trying to grind it out.
– Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself and to others.  I know this sounds a bit goofy, but I think it would’ve helped me to actually say my mantras out loud, or maybe say them to the others around me.  The last 2 miles were so quiet, with everyone shuffling along… some words of encouragement among the runners would have been nice.

5. Create the least mentally-taxing game plan possible.
This includes everything from decision-making (when to take fuel and water/Gatorade) to where to expect spectators.  My fuel schedule was set, but I was very indecisive about how many water stops I wanted to take, and when/if I wanted water versus Gatorade.  I also spent a lot of energy looking for my spectators and was sad when I didn’t see them.  We should’ve come up with a better plan, but I also should’ve have been mentally prepared not to see them.  I read in another runner’s recap that whenever she didn’t see her family at the expect location, she would just transfer her expectations to another set of spectators on the course, and imagine that the strangers were cheering for her.  It’s a stretch, but sounds like it could be psychologically useful.

6. “Great” training doesn’t always amount to a great race.
I had an injury-free, solid 18 weeks of training leading up to race day, which gave me a lot of confidence to reach for big goals.  However, marathons are unpredictable and MCM was a testament to that.  In retrospect, my training did lack some key things, like more race pace workouts, more fast finish long runs, and more hill repeats.  Yes, I had over 600 miles under my belt, but a good number of those runs were “junk miles” run too easy.  It may have behooved me to lower the quantity and increase the quality.  That said, my training volume has been apparent in my post-race recovery, which has gone very well.  I was very sore for about 36 hours after the race, but I’ve been more or less fine since then and went for a short trail run on Saturday without any problems.  I also haven’t succumbed to any post-race illnesses, so that’s another thing to be thankful for.

7. Carry a handheld water bottle.
One common theme in the races where I’ve struggled versus the ones where I’ve done well is whether I’ve used my handheld water bottle.  I can think of several reasons why the handheld works for me, despite the extra weight:
– I usually fill it with Cytomax, so I’m used to that extra bit of fuel, electrolytes, and caffeine every 1-2 miles on my own schedule.
– If I’m not carrying it, slowing down at water stops causes me to break my rhythm and makes my fatigue more noticeable.  At MCM, this happened to me at the water stop after mile 16.
– Having to stop at water stations gives me too much of an excuse to walk.  There’s nothing wrong with walking through water stations, but as the race progresses, I tend to take more and more time at each station.  I’ve done this at enough races to know that this is definitely my weakness!
– Avoiding decision-making.  Having my own bottle prevents me from having to decide at which stations I need to stop, whether to take water or Gatorade, and where along the station to pull over (and avoid traffic while doing so).

8. Have other reasons to race besides the event itself.  Also: maintain perspective.
Even though I had a disappointing race performance, it helped to know that I had wanted to run this MCM for many reasons outside of just running another marathon.  Having my friends and family there, and being able to run in my hometown kept me from feeling sad about my race performance.  Beyond MCM, I always have more fun at races when my friends are also racing or when there’s additional significance (e.g., when I ran in Healdsburg on my birthday).
Re: perspective — it was a big help after the race to be surrounded by non-runners, who didn’t care at all about my time, but were just amazed that I ran a marathon.  I may not have PR’ed, but I finished my 2nd marathon which is more than most people can say.  On a related note — as much as I love my fellow runners, I realized that being constantly immersed in running blogs has skewed my idea of what running means, and how to measure success.  Since MCM, I’ve decided to take a small step back from the blogging/social media world.

9. Huge road races are not for me.
Having experienced all of the highs and lows of running in the 3rd largest marathon in the U.S., I’ve come to the conclusion that big city marathons are not my thing.  The travel, cost, security, spectating logistics, and crowding during the race are just not worth it in my book.  I was glad to run MCM and I did have fun during parts of it, but I doubt that I’d do it again, or run in Chicago or NYC.  That said, if I could get into the Boston Marathon, I would totally do it.  Duh.

UPDATE: I came across the following quote in a New York Times article about sub-elites, featuring an investment banker named Greg Cass, that sums up marathoning quite well:

“That is both the gift and the curse of the marathon,” Cass said. “When you finally get it right, it’s the product of 30 variables that you have maybe 50 percent control of. When you get it wrong, you try to analyze all 30 of those variables. It’s nearly impossible to figure out exactly what went wrong and how to make it better next time. But that’s the goal. To take a look at what happened and go back to the drawing board. And, if it’s in the cards, to give it another go.”

Me having fun at MCM.  This is what I want to remember.

Me having fun at MCM. This is what I want to remember.

**

So, what’s next?  I took last week off from running (minus a short trail run Saturday), and am planning on keeping it light for the rest of November at about 20 miles/week… though that might drop to 10 miles a week while I’m in Taiwan over Thanksgiving.  🙂 I’ve got a trail half on December 15th that I’m not really “racing” that as much as running for fun with the Gypsy Runner and Cathryn.  My next big event is the Big Sur International Marathon in April 2014, for which I’m planning on following a lower mileage training regimen with a lot of hill workouts.  I’d like to run a half marathon in February/March where I focus on pacing and not on time (see above).  In general, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my running priorities and what I actually enjoy about racing.  So, even though MCM was a tough race, I’m really thankful for the experience because it’s helped to refocus my running mind and shed some light on much-needed changes.

Finally, I just wanted to say THANK YOU to all of you who have followed my MCM journey and commented, texted, emailed, or tweeted your support.  A special thanks to all of my running buddies, who made training 100x more fun, and to my sister and her family for putting us up and for coming out to support me on race day.  An extra special thanks to the Gypsy Runner, who put up with the crazy weekend training schedules, my roller coaster of emotions, and spectated like a madman – you’re the best!!postrace lunch

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About

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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19 comments on “Marine Corps Marathon: Post-Race Analysis
  1. Amy says:

    You have a lot of great points! Marathons are pretty tricky, and I think it probably takes at least 5-7 before anything starts making sense! I absolutely agree with mentally preparing for EVERYTHING including crowds, out-and-backs, etc. Something as small as a very insignificant hill almost derailed me at mile 26 at Chicago because at that point, my brain couldn’t handle any unforeseen obstacles. But it takes multiple attempts to even realize that all of this needs to happen!

    Overall, great job on the analysis. Hopefully this will all help come December/January-ish when you start training again!

    • Jen says:

      Thanks Amy! It seems daunting to have to do 5-7 marathons to really get the hang of it, but as I’m just beginning to finally understand half marathons (having done 5), that makes a lot of sense. And every course is so different, not to mention the weather and other variables. I guess there’s just something really tempting about trying to solve an impossible puzzle! (either that or I’m insane…)

  2. I love reading your take aways! I was NOT prepared for the course to be as crowded as it was! I mean, I knew it was a huge race, but I didn’t anticipate not really being able to ditch the bulk of the people I was running around (unless I wanted to weave the whole race and we all know how terrible that is on your energy levels!). Lesson learned!

    • Jen says:

      Yeah, I stopped weaving halfway through because I didn’t want to waste any more energy. Luckily, either the crowds thinned out some or the roads got wider… though I seem to recall one section of Crystal City where the spectators were off the curb, forcing all the runners into a narrow lane? Or was I hallucinating?

  3. BT says:

    All very good points, Jen. And yes, I agree that every marathon is different. I think it was Desi Davila who said, “I don’t care who you are, you have to respect the distance.” It’s totally true.

  4. Cathryn says:

    So much wisdom in this recap.

    I think only running 0.2m extra was quite extraordinary – I ran half a mile longer in the Oakland Half due to the twists and turns! And YES to carrying a water bottle, I’ve always firmly believed in it (as long as you’re used to it) to avoid the water station messiness/pace-interruption.

    Interested in your training plan for Big Sur and how it’ll be different!

    • Jen says:

      I agree that 0.27 mi isn’t too bad in terms of extra mileage, but I think where it does make a difference is calculating paces. If I knew about the extra mileage, I probably would’ve added a few minutes to my overall goal time. Also, I ran an extra 0.2 mi in the first half, and only 0.07 in the second — so I either got smarter about running tangents or I wasn’t weaving as much (or both). For comparison, I only ran 0.08 mi extra for CIM!

  5. Great tips!! I’m glad you are looking at the marathon as a learning experience and not something that brings you down.

    • Jen says:

      Thanks, Jan. Even though I had a tough race, I’m very grateful for the experience. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? 😉

  6. Angela says:

    Yes yes yes. So much truth. I’ve had a lot of these same thoughts post-marathon, especially the one about it being *completely* unpredictable. It’s just too many miles & too much time. You can do everything perfectly & still never know what might happen.

    • Jen says:

      Yeah, it’s incredibly frustrating, though I think the unpredictability is also what draws me in. I was just thinking that marathons have a lot in common with scientific research (which is what I used to do)… there are a lot of unknowns/variables. Despite the high failure rate, I always went into every experiment hoping that it would work. Hopefully, I’ll have more success with marathoning!

  7. Kira says:

    Hey, Jen! Congratulations on finishing. The rest is just icing. See you late November for some runs, hopefully!

  8. Dominick S. says:

    All awesome points but don’t take too big a step back from blogging, some of us need you around. I read that New York Times article this morning and it was entirely awesome. I love that you’re signed up for Big Sur already. I should probably read your posts in order!

    Congrats on marathon two and deciding to run number three!

    • Jen says:

      Thanks for making me feel needed, Dominick. 🙂 No worries, I’m going to keep blogging. What I meant by taking a step back is that I’m going to stop reading random blogs — i.e. people I don’t know or interact with. I feel like it subconsciously skews my perspective of what running is about. I don’t know if that makes sense… basically, what I mean is that running a marathon is a big deal, and I kinda lost sight of that. I also lost sight of the fact that I shouldn’t take getting faster for granted. I felt like both of those points were influenced by the blogosphere.

      Oh, and I signed up for Big Sur in the summer! I guess I just hadn’t announced it yet. I’m definitely running that one for fun — expect lots of photos!!

      • Dominick S. says:

        Big Sur…I have a small inkling of interest in giving that one a whirl but it would totally be for fun. I talked to someone about it while waiting in the terminal on race day…they said its beautiful but not a RACE…its a scenic tour to be experienced.

        • Jen says:

          Yeah, it’s definitely not one to run for time, as there is a big ass hill at the halfway point, not to mention the possibility of wind and rain! My goal is to train just enough to enjoy it at an easy pace.

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