Matt McDonald ran a PR 2:11:10 to place 14th at last October’s Chicago marathon, making him the ninth-fastest man heading into the Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta on February 29. A Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at Georgia Tech University, McDonald trains with the Atlanta Track Club. He shared details of his training with us from January 26 to February 1, 5 weeks out from the Trials.

There are only five weeks to go until the Olympic Trials Marathon in my adopted hometown of Atlanta. Last weekend (January 19) I raced a half marathon at Rock n’ Roll Arizona and ran a big PR (even adjusted for the course being nearly 300 m short) and that has me psyched for a big week of training. My coaches, Amy Yoder and Andrew Begley, want to try bumping up my weekly mileage to a new lifetime high of 135 miles per week, 15 more than I’ve ever done before.

photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

While I live in and go to school in Atlanta, this month we are in Albuquerque NM to train at altitude and escape the rainy Atlanta winter. The most difficult aspect of coming to Albuquerque is taking six weeks away from my PhD work; I have a few more months until earning my PhD in Chemical Engineering from Georgia Tech. Fortunately my advisors (I’ve been lucky enough to have three advisors while most grad students only have one) are supportive of me pursuing my running ambitions, but I still have to work remotely or risk falling too far behind. However, such a high mileage week will leave me with very little appetite for schoolwork. (Dr. Bommarius if you’re reading this, I’ll make up for it in March.)

Atlanta Track Club has rented a house for us in the Albuquerque foothills, where I’m living with my marathon teammates Wilkerson Given, Bridget Belyeu, and Maegan Krifchin. The four of us cook meals together, work on a puzzle that’s taken over our coffee table, struggle to share the one car, and can’t get enough of Love Island (UK) season 3. While I have been blessed with feeling good/no injuries (knock on wood) my teammates sometimes need physical therapy or cross training all over town, meaning the car is usually gone. So unless we’re working out, my runs usually start from the house.

My coaches start the week on Sunday, and, while I prefer to start on Monday, I’m going to start this log on Sunday to humor them.

Sunday, January 26:

AM: 12 miles; PM: Gym session

This is my lowest mileage day of the week, and coach is sure to remind me of that. Yesterday was a 24 mile long run with considerable marathon-paced work, so today is meant for recovery. Unfortunately I have this obsession-compulsion (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a disorder, but my teammates think it’s weird) to average at least 6:30 pace—so, recovery be damned, I went out and back on Tramway for 12 miles a bit faster than coach probably would have suggested.

Tramway is the main road in the foothills, it’s got a paved bike path alongside it, and rolling hills. It’s predominately uphill on the way out, and I do almost all my morning runs on it. After turning around the last six miles hover around 6:00.

In the afternoon we head to the gym. I use the phrase “gym session” liberally: All I really do is 45 minutes of core exercises that I probably could have done at home, but I find it so much easier to exercise with a bunch of strangers watching you.

Since this is our only day without an afternoon run, we decide to take advantage and take the Sandia Tram (Tramway’s namesake) to the top of Sandia peak for a short hike and appetizers at the mountain top restaurant Ten 3.

From the top of Sandia Peak / photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

Monday, January 27:

 AM: 14 miles, PM: 6 miles

Mondays are always the most stressful day of the week for me because I have several meetings at school (plus on this particular Monday I woke up to a bunch of urgent emails). I still have to attend those meetings while in Albuquerque, but with the added challenge that we are two hours behind Atlanta and my 9 am meeting is now at 7 am.

So today I wake up early to prepare for the meeting, Skype into Georgia Tech from 7 to 9 am, get dressed to run, do 14 on Tramway at a decent clip (6:15 average), and when I get back, immediately return to Skype for a 11 to 12 meeting.

After working for the rest of the afternoon (at my own pace, no more meetings) it is time for an easy double. The 6:30 average rule doesn’t apply here, mostly because my go-to six-mile loop is incredibly hilly. Instead I climb into the foothills and enjoy the New Mexico sunset at a comfortable 7 minute pace.

What I usually look like working on my PhD at Georgia Tech, this month I’m on a laptop instead / photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

Tuesday, January 28:

 AM: 12 miles, PM: 6 miles

The day before a workout I usually try and take it easier, but this morning I fight a strong headwind the entire way out on Tramway, which leads to 6 miles at 5:45 on the way back, getting blown by the tailwind; faster than I would have liked, but I try not to fret about feeling good. On days like today when I don’t have early morning meetings I like to make some pancakes and enjoy a cup of coffee for an hour or two before running, so the fast times may have come from good fuel.

After the run I spend some time in our Air Relax pants and rolling on our Rollga contoured foam roller. The contours let me get deeper into my hamstrings, which have a nasty habit of tightening up on me. I also try and get some time out in the sun: Atlanta is so rainy this time of year I feel the need to soak up all the Albuquerque rays I can. But for the most part, the afternoon consists of schoolwork.

Later, another 6 mile double in the foothills, exactly the same as the day before.

Wednesday, January 29:

AM: 10 x 1 mile at marathon pace, PM: 6 miles (21 miles total on the day)

In the thick of our marathon buildup, we usually do two hard workouts a week: A long-ish interval session on Wednesday and a long continuous effort on Saturday. Today we have 10 by 1 mile at half marathon pace with two minutes jog recovery between each.

Instead of Tramway we drive to the river to avoid running through intersections, and we get into a good rhythm. The workout goes well, except taking bottles at altitude (to practice for the race) is no joke and I spill all over myself. The goal was 4:50, but with the wind in our face for miles 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, and at out back for 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, we drift around a bit, hitting splits of: 4:52, 4:48, 4:48, 4:56, 4:54, 4:45, 4:46, 4:54, 4:54, 4:45. With warmup and cool down it’s a 15 mile morning.

After the workout we head back to the house for lunch, which again consists of leftovers. Today’s afternoon 6 mile double starts from the gym for a much flatter—but less scenic—run. Afterwards, another core workout to round out a hard day’s work.

Wilkerson and I running on the Freedom Parkway in Atlanta / photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

Thursday, January 30:

AM: 12 miles, PM: 6 miles

The morning session is another 12 miles out and back on Tramway. The splits are more even than usual because Mizuno, Atlanta Track Club’s sponsor, is filming some B-roll for a video series on the upcoming trials, and the camera provides a little extra motivation to not start with a 7:30 mile. We average 6:20 for the morning.

The afternoon is filled with more filming with Mizuno; interviews, candidly doing work or laying in the sun, drills, core, etc. For the evening double a video drone captures some awesome footage of Maegan and I running through the foothills.

Friday, January 31:

AM: 12 miles, PM: 6 miles

More of the same, except today I break the 6:30 rule (obsession or not, it’s more a guideline than an actual rule) in anticipation of tomorrow’s workout. 12 miles on Tramway at 6:40 average isn’t too shabby though! It’s Friday so I slack off on the schoolwork a little and focus on using the Air Relax pants, foam rolling, taking a nap, eating well, and catching up on Love Island.

The afternoon run is another 6 miles in the foothills. The elevation change through the foothills is grueling, but the views and sunset make it worthwhile. 7 minute average once again.

Using the air relax pants to flush my legs / photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

Saturday, February 1:

AM: 20 miles, PM 5 mile tempo (28 miles total on the day)

This is the big effort for the week! We go down to the river for our morning long run. The point here is to tire the legs with 20 miles on pavement and get used to the monotony of the marathon.

During the first 12 miles we take three bottles, again to practice for the trials. But in the second half of the run, no bottles—to try and get into the fat burning regime. Wilkerson and I average 5:55 for 20 miles, not exactly evenly split, but a good progression from 6:15 to 5:40.

We head back to the house to refuel, emphasizing hydration so that my legs remain loose for the tempo. The Rollga and Air Relax pants help keep things from stiffening up like they usually do after 20 miles.

Before the afternoon session I try and replicate my morning routine, but now at 2 pm. Pancakes, coffee, relaxing, stretching, rolling, and listening to a little music to get pumped up and not fall asleep.

Matt McDonald training in Albuquerque for Olympic Trials
Albuquerque long run / photo: courtesy Matt McDonald

The tempo is on Tramway to get some hills and turns, like we’ll have on the Trials course in Atlanta. We start the warmup at 4 pm, do 2 miles warm up, a few drills, and then go right into the tempo. The goal is marathon pace, but half marathon pace is coming easy, so I go with it.

At only 5 miles the point isn’t so much the cardio benefit of a tempo as it is to force myself to run fast on tired legs. We also practice with another bottle to get used to having a sloshing stomach and drinking while running fast. We average 4:47 and only narrowly avoid two cars turning right while only looking left! A mile cool down brings the day’s total to 28 miles.

To celebrate the end of a big week we go out for Mexican food. I had a chicken chimichanga, chips and queso, and a couple sopapillas; food-wise it was my cheat day.

Total For the Week: 135 Miles