Crafting Your Marathon Race Plan

Marathon Preparedness
You need a good plan to go with all the gear. (Photo credit: super-structure)

I’m writing this on the verge of running my first marathon. As I close in on race day, it seems surreal–still just an idea in my head, a training plan on paper, a melodramatic blog post, but not an actual thing that I’ll do in real life. (I’m assuming the “feeling real” part will kick in by mile 18, if not sooner.)

With tapering well underway and fewer hours spent gazing (or glaring) at my treadmill console, I’ve had a bit more time to Google All The Things about preparing for a marathon. I’ve also begun to obsess about the truly big questions such as: What if my laces come untied? Will I make it 3 1/2+ hours without a port-a-potty? If I make the ugly face for a solid six point two miles, will my face freeze that way?

One thing is certain–I need a plan. For the past 18 weeks, I relied heavily on a training plan to prepare me for the marathon. And now that 18 weeks are nearly up, I need a plan for those final 3 to 4 hours, for the race itself. Being a marathon virgin, I can’t write the authoritative end-all-be-all guide to creating a race plan. At least not with a straight face. But I can share some of the questions to answer when determining your race day strategy–as well as some of the answers and advice our resident experts have to offer.

1) What is your target pace? How will you handle the hills or other course-related challenges? Will you line up with a pace group, and if so, which one?

From the experts: In Pete Pfitzinger’s book Advanced Marathoning (the book I referenced extensively during my training), he writes that steady and even pacing is the most optimal approach, understanding that you will lose some efficiency in the latter half of the race and can expect your pace to drop by at least a few seconds per mile.ย  Pepper weighed in with some fabulous insight on how to choose your marathon goal pace. And once you’ve honed in on that goal, Mint offers some great advice about how to nail your marathon goal pace come race day. But perhaps the most important piece of advice on pace is this: Do not–we repeat–DO NOT go out too fast. Doing so is a well-documented fast track to a painful and slow finish.

My plan: Under no circumstances will I allow myself to go out too fast!ย  I’ll concentrate on staying near (or slower than) my goal pace in the first few miles until I find a comfortable rhythm. In my training, I targeted an 8 minute average pace, which roughly translates to a 3:30 finish. But the course has a few challenging hills, and this is my very first 26.2, so I want to be somewhat conservative at least through the first half. At the expo, I hope to chat with the pace group leaders at the 3:30 and 3:35 paces to find out what their race plans are and glean what I can about what to expect from the course. Then I’ll likely line up somewhere in between the two groups. If I’m feeling fabulous by the halfway mark and still have the 3:30 group in sight, I might try to tuck in and hang with the 3:30 group to the finish.

2) Fluids. What’s your plan for water stops? Will you stop at each one or just drink to thirst? Will you walk through the stops?

From the experts:ย ย The latest in sports science says drink to thirst on the course rather than adhere to a formula to prevent tummy troubles and even worse, hyponatremia (water poisoning – eek!).

My plan: I am planning to drink to thirst, and to take water after every gel to the extent possible. I will likely take the extra 5 seconds or less to walk through the stops, as I haven’t sufficiently mastered the drinking while running technique.

3) Fuel. What food/ fuel will you carry and how?

From the experts: Again, the Salties have it covered with comprehensive posts about how much fuel you need and how to carry it. You won’t find anything more helpful or specific on the internet. Trust me, I’ve googled it.

My plan: I’m still trying to nail down how many gels or sport beans I’ll carry and how. I hope to do a modified dress rehearsal this week at the indoor track to determine whether the safety pin trick will work for me or whether I need to resort to using my Spi-belt. I’m sure I’ll look both sane and fashionable running in circles with snack baggies of jelly beans pinned to my shorts.

4) What will you say to yourself when it starts to get tough?

From the experts: Again, the Salties have helpful perspective to share on affirmation and mental toughness.

Light, fast, strong … (Photo credit: wiccked)

My plan: In my last two half marathons, my go-to phrase was “I’ve got this.” I said it to myself over and over to keep my mind off the pain, particularly in miles 9-13. I’ll probably pull that trusty old phrase out in addition to new chant I came up with during my last difficult speed workout. In keeping with the rhythm of my foot falls, I’d repeat “light, fast, strong, float” until (A) I felt like I was floating at 5k pace effortlessly or (B) the mile interval was finished. The answer was always B, but the chant did take my mind off how long I had left and kept my brain occupied so it didn’t have time to sabotage me with negativity. I also have the benefit of some built-in accountability to report back to this great community of runners. Knowing that I’m going to have to report back on whether I dug deep or wimped out will definitely help motivate me to give it all I have.

So, what did I miss? What other questions are important to answer when crafting a race plan? Any last minute advice for this rookie? I’m all ears (and nerves)!


[Editor’s note: Marathon virgin no more, Basil’s planning worked and the woman CRUSHED it yesterday! She ran a 3:36 and qualified for Boston. WOO – F’in -HOO!]

Recovering corporate hamster-wheeler turned Alaskan hausfrau, mother of two and running enthusiast. Kind of a June Cleaver in tempo shorts...minus the makeup and vacuum. Will run to great lengths to get a moment of peace.

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  1. Congrats on your BQ!

    This is something I saw my friend’s husband do. He printed out a map of the racecourse and wrote the estimated times she was expected to show up at different points. I thought this was genius! It ensured he saw her along the way and nothing is more of a rush than seeing your loved ones during a tough spot in the race.

  2. I can’t believe I’m sharing this but I’m amongst running friends, right? With regards to the porta potty question, I have discovered the LSL… The long, slow leak. Yes, that side effect of giving birth that would seem to be such a disadvantage can actually come in handy when running for hours!

      1. Thanks so much, Kristi! And while this little tidbit isn’t going to make it in the race report, it’s entirely possible I accidentally kicked off the long, slow leak with a bang when I attempted a snot rocket early in the race. Oopsay! :-)

    1. Ha! I hear you Kristi! I doubt I’d ever stop to pee in the middle of the race ever again since I’m so used to being pee covered after a long hard run anyway :)