Mint’s recent Marathon Pacing post touched on the many ways you can go about marathon pacing. Today I’d like to take it one step further and talk about how to choose your marathon goal. Having run 24 marathons (!) I have gone about this process in pretty much every way possible, and I think there are benefits to each method. I should note that for the majority of the marathons I have raced I did not hit my goal (though I did usually get better). Perhaps I am a dreamer, or perhaps I just set aggressive goals. The marathon is a tricky race and there are so many variables that need to be just right to run your best 26.2, but I firmly believe that this fact should not prevent us from aiming high! Salty Readers, let’s go for it this fall!
And to help you do just that, I’ve outlined some handy tips for selecting a marathon goal time and give examples from my marathoning past to help you. Ready to go on a goal-setting adventure? Let’s go!
Ah. The internet and all its fancy tools. There are several excellent calculators available to help you ballpark your marathon goal time. All you need is a recent race time, preferably a half marathon, but for most of these tools, any race distance will do. Plug in the race time and *voila!* out pops a marathon goal time. Here are the most popular online calculators:
The Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator
The McMillan Running Calculator
The Running for Fitness Race Time Predictor
Hill Runner’s Race Conversion Calculator
Pepper’s Preferred Method also from Hill Runner (requires math!)
And for those who like to calculate numbers the old fashioned way, we have a formula for that!
The old fashioned/simple approach: Half marathon*2 plus 10 minutes.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE FIRST TIMER.
The obvious goal is to finish, but if you are a Salty Reader I am just guessing your aspirations are a bit higher. Perhaps you had a goal in mind and you trained for it from the start, but how do you know if it is realistic? There are quite a few good tools to predict your marathon time based on current races. I’d say as a first timer those calculators are pretty aggressive. Unless you have trained at a very high level it is unlikely your 5k PR is a realistic base for what you can currently do in the marathon, and even your half time may be off. But when trying to get a ball park the above calculators are useful tools to start with. If you have recently run a half-marathon, an aggressive, but doable first time marathon goal time would be to use the old-fashioned approach (half-marathon*2 +10) and add an extra 5 minutes. So if you ran a 2:00 half marathon, a doable but aggressive first marathon goal time would be 4:15.
For my first marathon I had a goal before I even started training. I wanted to qualify for Boston, and seeing as my friends said I could do it, I just sort of assumed I would. Ah to be young and naive again. I do not recall if I even followed a training program, but I do know I ran most weeks less than 26 mpw and that I added a last minute 20 miler two weeks out because my peers told me a three week taper was too much. Based on my first half marathon in 1:43:17, the 3:40 goal wasn’t unreasonable. Though my training was not nearly up to par and I made that goal by the skin of my teeth. I honestly believe I made the goal because someone said I could do it and I believed them. I’d like to thank my friends for not convincing me I was faster than that! The calculators would have predicted I was set for 3:37 but I suffered mightily to come away with 3:39:42.
THE A, B, C … GOAL APPROACH.
Many runners like to set an A goal, and then maybe a B and C goal in case race day isn’t perfect. I went into my 3rd marathon with multiple goals, which came in handy when I realized my A goal, 3:25 wasn’t going to happen. It helped to have a back up goal in place, which for me, ever the competitor, was to at least be faster than one of my friends PRs. I managed to up her PR by a few seconds finishing in 3:27:17. A new PR, but not quite that A goal. I would go on to chase that same 3:25 A goal for another 5 marathons before breaking it in 2008 at Boston in 3:22:50. In those cases having the B goal of qualifying for Boston most certainly helped keep me on track when my legs started to mutiny.
THE SECRET GOAL
Anyone who knows me is well aware that this is not my area of expertise, as I like to share most of my goals. However, it seems very common for runners to sandbag their private goals when announcing them publicly. [Editor’s note: sandbagging means to say you plan to run slower than you really do.] This can be advantageous if you are easily persuaded by peer pressure or negative commentary on your abilities. Sometimes a goal is best kept to oneself, maybe for a big breakthrough that you know you are due for, or a ballsy effort you are planning that may go wrong.
The closest I have come to the secret goal was the race in which I set my marathon PR. Before the race I publicly stated my goal was to go sub 3. Lofty based on what I had done on paper, but I was confident I would go under 2:56 even on a bad day, and I just had a feeling I was capable of between 2:48 and 2:52 on a good day. It did help that the spotlight was not on me at all and no one expected me to race so well other than my closest supporters. I had no pressure that race from anyone but myself, and it paid off big time with a 2nd place finish at the 2010 Columbus Marathon and a PR of 2:49:53.
THE MUSHY NO-TIME GOAL: RUN YOUR BEST.
In my most recent two marathons, 2011 Philly and 2012 Boston, I set no goal other than running the fastest I could given what the race day dealt me. The first time I tried it was Philly. There the ultimate goal was 2:46 for the OTQ, but training was interrupted, injuries ensued, and all I wanted was to run a marathon as hard as I could on the day. Sure I wanted to run a PR, I wanted to run 2:46, and my realistic goal was to be under 2:52, but I set all of those aside and simply raced instinctively. I can tell you that I have never worked as hard in a marathon or been prouder of my effort. I let it all out and pushed myself to the max that day, running a 2:51:59. I think for most this may be hard to do until you have raced several marathons and really have a feel for what a well raced marathon feels like. But for me I have a feeling this is how I will race most of my races from now on. Even when I have an ultimate time goal. This was a life saver for me at Boston this year with the extreme heat. Had I stuck to a time goal like most runners that day I would have had a terrible race. Knowing how a hard marathon effort should feel was key to pacing myself appropriately in the heat that day.
As a pacer who has seen many people set their goals too aggressively I cannot express enough how important it is to be realistic, while still aiming high. Do the training and achieve your times at shorter distances to really get after your marathon goal. But if race day comes and you aren’t quite ready, save that goal for the next race and run a smarter marathon by setting your goal realistically for the day and the conditions. The best marathon experiences usually aren’t the ones where you fell off pace and suffered mightily on the back half; they are the ones that you paced perfectly for a tough but doable finish!
GOING FOR BROKE.
You’ve put in the miles, you’ve raced quite a few marathons, you have hit all your previous A goals. You have a pie in the sky goal, and even though nothing indicates you can hit it, you know in your heart of hearts that you are ready to pull it off on a good day. Maybe it’s time to test the waters and really go big. In my experience this hasn’t worked very well, but for every 9 out of ten failures at this there is one success. Maybe today will be your day? I’d only go with this method if you can be content with a ballsy effort and a relatively poor result.
If you are lucky the stars will align and this will work for you, if you are semi-lucky you will experience a minimal break down and still run a decent race (shoot for the stars and you may reach the moon?) If you are human you may experience the marathon bonk, and the even more humbling death march to the finish. All results are character building and will teach you lessons. I’d say this one is worth a go every so often, but don’t make it a habit. I had a very bad experience with this one at Boston in 2011 (hint running the first 10km near your 10km PR is unwise).
The best marathons are those run at an even pace or with a negative split, and those results usually come from nailing your prediction for your appropriate marathon goal.
How do you set your marathon goals? Do you share them with the world? Do you have backup goals to keep you accountable if things don’t go your way? Are you an all or nothing runner? Let the Salties know your goals for this fall so we can root for you to achieve them!