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August 6, 2017

Learning to know your pace when running a race

It may seem a little early to start thinking about running a marathon this fall - or winter - but if you are training for your first one, now is as good a time as any.

Even if you have run a marathon before, August is a good time to start early training. It is hot, and long runs are tough to do. A good base of 8 to 10 miles is about the necessary long run for a marathon in late November or December.

For your first marathon, the goal is to finish. For the second or third one, the goal might be to set a time objective to run the marathon in. It seems that most beginning marathon runners set a goal of four hours. More experienced runners look at 3:30 for a time. Advanced and faster runners seem to try for that three hours as a goal.

The key to a marathon is to know your pace, and what mile times you need during the 26.2 miles along the way. Some marathon runners try to run an even pace to reach their goal. For instance, a 4-hour marathon has an average pace of 9 minutes; a 3:30 marathon needs a pace of 8 minutes, and a 3-hour marathon needs a 7-minute average. It is very difficult to run a steady pace for 26.2 miles.

My goal was to be under 3:10 to qualify for Boston. I set a goal of 3:05 to give me a little cushion for any problems that might happen during the race. I had read about a system that George Myers had developed that sounded reasonable. Myers’ theory is divided in 5-mile blocks of time, with a change of pace for every 5-mile block.

Miles 0 through 5 takes 18.75 percent of the total time that you established. Miles 5 to 10 are 18.15 percent of your total time. Miles 10 through 15 take 18.55 percent of your total time. Miles 15 to 20 are 19.25 percent of your total time, and miles 20 through 25 take 20.35 percent of your total time.

A good calculator is needed; and taking percentages of the total time - and even taking something like a decimal point and changing it to seconds - is a challenge. I was fortunate to have a calculator that used minutes and seconds that made figuring out my mile splits much easier.

An example of a 4-hour marathon time has you starting out at a 9-minute pace; dropping down to an 8:43 pace to mile 10; easing off to an 8:54 pace; than a 9:15 pace and finishing with a 9:46 pace. For my qualifying time of 3:05, and using Myers’ theory, had me finishing in 3:03 hours.

It worked great for me. I have used it for walkers who want to walk it in 7 hours, and runners wanting to make that 3:30 mark. The key to making this work is that you must know your pace and how fast you are running.

For best results in developing pace, you need a quarter-mile track that almost all high schools will have around a football field. Running the full quarter mile, and not knowing how fast you are running, is a difficult task.

If you divide the quarter mile into four intervals, it is easier to know how fast you are running and to learn how that pace feels. Start at the 50-yard line of the football field, and divide the track so that, when you go by the goalposts on one end, that is 110 yards. The opposite side of the 50-yard line is halfway, and the goalposts at the other end is three quarters of the quarter-mile track.

An example of running a 9-minute pace around a quarter mile (400 meters) has you passing the first goal posts in 34 seconds; the opposite 50-yard line in 1:08; the second goalposts time is 1:41, and 2:16 at the finish, or starting point.

It is easier to adjust time with 110-yard intervals and to make adjustments to learn pace. An 8:30-per-mile pace will have the four intervals at 32 seconds, 1:04, 1:36 and 2:08.

Looking at the different split times, it doesn’t seem like that big of a difference – 34 seconds versus 32 seconds, or 1:08 versus 1:04. But running 30 seconds faster per mile for a marathon makes a difference of 17 minutes for your total time. That may not seem like much; but when times are measured in small amounts of minutes, it often means that you either finish or hit the wall around 20 miles and not finish.

It takes time - and quite a few laps around the track - to learn what that set pace you have established feels like. In the marathon, the only splits you get are measured in miles; and running those first miles too fast can throw your whole schedule off.

My one experience before I learned pace was a half marathon. I wanted to average a 7:30 pace. I got in with a group of faster runners and hit the first mile in 6:15. It took me four miles to get back on my scheduled pace. But, at mile 9 – four miles from the finish – those four fast miles came back to haunt me. A very slow jog was my finish, and many minutes off my set goal.

Use this early training time to learn pacing; and you will be much better at accomplishing that set time for a marathon – or even a 5K distance.

Moe Johnson
Dr. Maurice Johnson - better known around San Marcos as “Moe” - is a professor in the Department of Health, P.E., Recreation and Dance at Texas State University - San Marcos. Moe has been a fixture in the San Marcos running community - both as a runner and race organizer - since way back when Moby Dick was a minnow. His column on running and fitness appears each Sunday in the Sports section of the San Marcos Daily Record.

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