Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Marathon Math

The Steamboat Marathon is a bit of a mystery to me. While the course is mostly downhill, it's also at a fairly high elevation, ranging from 8,200 feet to 6,700 feet. Although I have spent a lot of time in the mountains, I've never run at altitude, so I don't know how exactly I'll perform.

The plan is to arrive in Colorado three days early to give myself a bit of time to acclimate to the elevation, so hopefully that won't affect me too much. Hydration will be another problem because there are only nine aid stations on the course, compared to 15 at Big Sur. My plan this time is simply to take two cups of water at each station, walking for a few seconds if necessary to make sure I get enough water.

But the biggest question of all is how to handle pacing. Here's the elevation profile of the course, taken from a runner's Garmin plot from last year:

As you can see, it is primarily downhill, but there are four significant climbs, in miles 2, 4, 21-23, and 26. They may not look like much on this chart, but they are all around 100 vertical feet, which is nothing to sneeze at. Based on my experience at Big Sur, I don't expect the first two hills to be much of a problem. I'll be fresh, and the key here will be not starting off too fast. The last two hills, however, will be very tough, especially considering the pounding my legs will have taken during the first 20 miles, including 18 miles of downhill running. It will also be starting to warm up, with temperatures possibly in the low 60s.

My goal is to run a 3:30:00 marathon, which is an 8:01 pace per mile. While most marathon coaches would advise a relatively even pace for a marathon, obviously I will want to take advantage of the downhills on this course. But how fast to run on those hills? My average pace for the first 20 miles of Big Sur was 7:53, but I was quite tired at that point and slowed dramatically over the final 6.2 miles. But those first 20 miles featured over 1,200 feet of climbing. With only 200 feet of climbing in the first 20 miles of this race, I think a 7:53 pace would be much more comfortable. In fact, I'd like to shoot for closer to a 7:40 pace. That would give me a 7-minute cushion for the final six miles. I could slow to a 9-minute pace and still finish under 3:30. Or if I'm feeling really good, I could finish a bit faster. Unless the elevation and hydration issues turn out to be a large burden, I don't think a 7:40 pace is unreasonable. I ran a couple of the downhill legs at Big Sur faster than that. If it does turn out to be too challenging for me to maintain that pace, then I probably wouldn't be able to run a 3:30 marathon on this course no matter what strategy I use.

If I make it to the top of the hill at Mile 23 still feeling strong, then I think I will finish the race strong. Mile 21 was where things started unraveling at Big Sur, but I still had several major hills to contend with before the finish. At the end of Mile 23 at Steamboat, there are 2 downhill miles and one big climb left, and I'll have just finished the biggest climb of the race. But even if I'm not feeling great at that point, assuming I have a few minutes worth of cushion left, I may still be able to run a sub-3:30. Hopefully in that case I'll still be able to gut it out to the end.

Details of today's workout are below:

Today the plan was just to run an easy recovery with the group at DART. The biggest challenge would be resisting the urge to run too fast. Matt and Chris joined me, and they were okay with a relaxed run. We ended up doing an 8:30 pace on a steambath of a morning. It was a little faster than I would have run ideally, but I was never out of breath and enjoyed the company.

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