Training

Lisa Rainsberger: My Best Race and How I Achieved It

Here’s how Rainsberger set a personal best to win the 1989 Chicago Marathon.

For more than a decade from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s Lisa Larsen Rainsberger (formerly Lisa Larsen Weidenbach) ranked among the top two or three American women road racers. Specializing in the marathon, she scored major victories at Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Sapporo, and Twin Cities.

Lisa Larsen Rainsberger winning the Boston Marathon
Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, crossed the finish line in 2:34:06 at the 1985 Boston Marthon. Photo: George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

She was also known for her hard-luck in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where she finished fourth three times in a row (1984, 1988, 1992). Now 58, the former Olympic level swimmer at the University of Michigan lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she operates a coaching business at TrainingGoals.com. Her daughter, Katie Rainsberger, won the 800-1500-3000 “triple” two years in a row in the Colorado high school state meet, and has had a successful running career at the  Universities of Oregon and Washington (11 All-American selections with two seasons remaining).

By Rainsberger’s own estimation, the 1989 Chicago Marathon ranks as her Best Race. Facing a tough international field at Chicago, along with an unexpected set of obstacles, she repeated her previous year’s win, and achieved a personal record 2:28:15.

(Note: Rainsberger ran the exact same time again the next April to finish third in London. She considers her second best race, however, to be Hokkaido Marathon, Sapporo, Japan. She won the 1990 edition in 2:31:29 in hot, August conditions.)

“What happened that morning in Chicago was quite different from my ‘race plan,’” she explains. “First of all, I woke up to a monthly female visitor. Second, the start temperature was 68 degrees and expected to climb. Third, the first 5 miles of the race went out super fast.” Here’s how she managed to deal with these issues, and run her Best Race.

Best-Race buildup training:

Rainsberger trained on a 9-day cycle for several months before Chicago, averaging 85 to 95 miles per week. Her cycle included one interval day, one 4-mile tempo run, and one long run of 20 to 22 miles. She rounded out her regimen with several days of easy recovery runs, and several days of steady-state 10-milers.

Peaking for Chicago:

In the last month of her training, Rainsberger added two special workouts. One was mile repeats: 5 x 1-mile at sub-5:00 pace with a 2-minute recover jog. The other was a 12-mile fartlek workout with 3 miles or warm up and 3 miles of warm down. In between she ran 3 x (3 minutes hard/2 minutes hard/1 minute hard, with short recoveries). Overall, she averaged 5:35 to 5:40 pace for the 12 miles.

Taper:

Rainsberger’s taper lasted three full weeks. During that time, she gradually reduced her weekly mileage, shortened her long runs, and shifted her intervals to shorter, faster repeats with longer recoveries.

Goal:

Rainsberger was the returning champion, wearing race # 1. This made her feel a bit weird, like she should run up front with the leaders, even though the field was especially fast in a post-Olympic year. And the leaders did go out fast, despite a warm start-time temperature (68 degrees) that increased over the next several hours. At 5 miles, Rainsberger had to recalibrate to slow down. At 10 miles, she was almost two minutes behind the leaders.

Then things started to turn. The crowd told her that she was moving up. At the halfway point, she had reached third place. Soon she could see the helicopter above the first woman. But she didn’t give chase. She concentrated on holding her pace and maintaining her hydration. “I caught the leader at exactly 18 miles,” she remembers. “I surged a bit to make a statement, and went on to win by more than two minutes. The keys to my success that day: Race the pace you have trained for, and consume water and sports drinks on hot days.”

Key moment:

At 5 miles, Rainsberger allowed herself to back off the pace up front. The frontrunners were on 2:23 pace, and it was a hot day. “I let go of my ego, put my head down, and stopped chasing the leaders,” Rainsberger says. “I focused on my breathing, my splits, and keeping hydrated the things I could handle on the day.”

Biggest contributors to her Best Race:

“Hands down, this was a mental breakthrough race. I trusted my gut, and made the right choices at the right time. If I hadn’t trusted myself to slow down and stick with the pace I had trained for, I would have blown up later in the race.”

Advice for running your Best Race:

  1. “Give yourself enough time to train for a Best Race. It doesn’t just happen. I had a 16-week training buildup for mine.”
  2. “Pay attention to all the little things: stretching, strength, yoga, massage, your weight. Build all of these into your plan, and stay consistent with them.”
  3. “Run a few races along the way to gain feedback on your training progress.”
  4. “Keep away from social media. Focus on yourself not on what other runners are doing. Don’t try to match or beat workouts you have heard others are doing.”
  5. “Stick with shoes that are right for your foot type, and that you know work well for you. Don’t get enticed by some new shoe. Switching brands or types could lead to injury.”
  6. “Don’t overlook the importance of good nutrition. I firmly believe athletes need to balance not only caloric intake, but also when they eat, what they eat, and how often they eat. Since we’re all different, everyone has to discover what works best for them for long-term wellness. Women: Keep an eye on your ferritin levels.”