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Anatomy Of A Breakthrough

Brett Gotcher at last year's Houston Half Marathon. Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun
Brett Gotcher at last year's Houston Half Marathon. Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun

Our exclusive interview with new 2:10 marathoner Brett Gotcher.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

Twenty-six-year-old Brett Gotcher knows what it means to run a breakthrough race. Last year, he upset a stacked field to win the U.S. 20K Championships. After a disappointing world half marathon showing in Birmingham, England last November, where he placed 64th, Gotcher resumed his streak of breakthrough races. Last weekend in Houston, Gotcher ran the fourth-fastest American debut marathon (2:10:35). Gotcher is coached by Greg McMillan. He lives and trains in Flagstaff, Arizona. You just made another huge breakthrough in your racing career. What was different in your training from your half marathon in Birmingham to your marathon in Houston?

Brett Gotcher: A lot of it was the same, but one thing that really stuck out was the marathon-specific tempos that we were doing. We ran anywhere from 15- to 18-milers out on a road just going one way. That I think helps simulate what you can expect from a marathon, both in the terrain and how you feel.

The mileage wasn’t too different. It wasn’t too drastic. I did bump it up a little bit. I think I got to 140 [miles per week]. Yeah, it was those tempos. You have to endure the pain and see how you can run those last five miles. It was a whole new feeling I hadn’t felt before. It got me ready for what the marathon offered up.

How often were you doing those tempo workouts that you indicated were so important for your marathon? And when relative to your taper?

I was doing them about every other week. I would do a long tempo one week and then a long run the next week. The last tempo workout I did was about two weeks before the race and that was a 15-mile workout. I got some really nice tempos and some really solid long runs too.

For your long runs, were you just running at a relaxed pace?

Yep. The long runs were all about getting time on your legs. If you can be out there for two and a half to three hours, that is going to build that strength. It will hopefully callous your legs to all that pounding.

Did you ever get up on the track or was all your work out on the roads?

Most of it was on the roads, but we did get down to the track a couple times. Greg [McMillan] is a big fan of trying to cover all the bases. We wanted to make sure I had some leg strength so that 4:55 per mile didn’t feel crazy fast. So we got up on the track and did a bunch of 200s, 400s, miles—that kind of stuff.

Did you just say you did 200s for your marathon prep?

Yeah. We did a lot of them. I think I did 24 of them. It was all pretty relaxed. It wasn’t like trying to run 28 [seconds] for all of them. We did them to change up the pace and give your legs a break from that monotonous pace we were doing for marathon training.

Two hundred repeats is pretty fast for a marathoner. Did you ever feel you’d injure yourself when you were doing these?

I wasn’t concerned that I was going to injure myself. It felt different than doing 200s normally. I didn’t have the pop that I normally have, which meant that I needed to do them. I think they really helped out in the end.

Your 140-mile weeks: How did you break those up?

I was doing two runs a day. Even after the tempo workouts, I’d go run 20-30 minutes easy in the afternoon. There were a couple weeks where I was running seven days a week. I’d usually do a longer run in the morning for like 90 minutes and then 50 minutes to an hour in the afternoon. I was doing it all at 10,000 feet too. I run so much slower up here, so if I had run at sea level, I would have run 150 [miles a week].

Did training at altitude help your mental outlook going into the race?

Yeah. It was huge, I think. I don’t know if it’s for everybody, but for me, I had to be up here [at Flagstaff]. It just works; it’s kind of another level of suffering that you can go through, which I think can help you in any kind of racing—especially for the marathon. I felt like I was suffering a whole lot more daily, which is probably good.

After your U.S. 20K Championship win, you went into Birmingham with high expectations. But it turned out to be a setback for you. What went on there?

It was really tough. The 20K ended up being a tune-up for the World Half-Marathon championships. The 20K just kind of came out of nowhere. But the goal all along was to run really well at the world half. We knew it was a real rare occasion to get into a field with so many guys running between 60 and 62 minutes. I honestly felt really good before the race going into it. For some reason, once the race started, it just wasn’t my day. We’ve been trying to understand what caused it. It might have been the time we came down from altitude or it could have been the trip over there. I generally haven’t raced well overseas in the past. It’s definitely something I need to figure out since so many good races are over there.

You know that cliché: “You are only as good as your last race.” With that in mind, did you lose any confidence going into this debut marathon after your disappointing half marathon?

It was definitely a big blow. Greg and I had been talking about times for the marathon and pace. He had mentioned me running 2:10 and under. In my mind, I was like, “Whew, I just ran 2:11 pace for a half marathon. How can I possibly expect to turn this around in a couple of months?” So I took a couple days and got my mind back to where it needed to be. Once the marathon training started, I was into it full-on. I then completely forgot about the last race and looked forward to the next one.

Now that you are a newly minted 2:10 marathoner, what advice can you give to someone regarding how to run the marathon in terms of half-marathon splits? Do you advocate negative or even splits?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I’m the best guy to give that kind of advice!  I had a pretty rough last couple of miles in Houston. But honestly, I’d like to see more guys like me going for it in marathons. I know there are a lot of people out there that have the same ability as me and haven’t tried to run that fast. I think you have to give yourself a chance. I don’t think it would have made a difference if I had gone out at 65 minutes, because that much pounding on your legs is going to catch up to you. My breathing told me I was going at the right pace.

So are you saying run even splits?

Yeah, but that’s the kind of runner I am. I like to get in the rhythm and just click off the miles. But obviously that doesn’t go for every race. A race like a world championship race or a race on a slower course will bring out tactics more. I think it comes down to having the right plan for the race that you are running. That way you can maximize your potential for that race.

Now that you’ve gotten all this marathon training underneath you and have run a 2:10, are you excited about dropping down in distance and realizing the gains from your aerobic base?

Yeah, definitely. Spring is coming up and I feel like I have a lot of room to improve on the track. I think this will be the kind of year where I can risk it all and go for it. There is nothing really to lose; there’s no world champs. Hopefully I’ll come away with some big PRs.

Back to the marathon; you said you struggled in the last couple miles. What are you going to do differently in your next marathon to deal with that?

I don’t think there are a whole lot of things we can do from the training side of things. I did learn some things during the marathon cycle—maybe a more smooth, flowing cycle would have given me some more consistency going in. I felt like it was pretty good. I was about as well prepared as I could be. But there are a couple things I could work on like the fueling situation. That is something so new to me: taking in fluids. I think that is something I need to take a little more seriously in the future. I’ve been getting the feeling from a lot of people that it really does have a big impact—especially during those late miles. But now that I’ve run one, I think I know how to balance my energy better so that I don’t completely lose it with two miles to go in the race.

When and where will your next marathon be?

I’m not really sure. Late in the race, I thought I was going to run a lot faster. Even though I am really happy and excited with my time, there is still a bittersweet feeling that I can go out and run 2:09 or maybe even under 2:09 on a really amazing day. In that respect, I’d love to get out there on a fast course and get that time. There are so many options. It looks like the fall will be my next one. I’m just really excited, man. I’m really pumped and want to get out there and do another one.

You are like the king of breakthrough races. You seem to show up and smash barriers. What advice can you give to people in terms of running a breakthrough race?

You just have to be confident. You have to know that the work you did beforehand isn’t for nothing. It’s been done. It’s just tough, because it comes down to how you feel on that day. I think if you prepare yourself well enough, you are going to feel great about yourself and your training. And there will be a better chance of it coming together.

Have you taken your coach to task on his calculator? If you put in your 20K time in, it predicts a 2:11 marathon.

Man, he really needs to fix that thing [He laughs]! Seriously, that guy knows what he is doing. He has predicted a lot of my races. I don’t think that’s just a coincidence. I really trust him.


Duncan Larkin is a 2:32 marathoner living in West Chester, PA.