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The Ambitious First Marathon

Photo: Courtesy Greg McMillan
Photo: Courtesy Greg McMillan

An interview with coach Greg McMillan

First-time marathon runners are often advised to set a conservative goal and run at a conservative pace. But Flagstaff, Ariz.-based running coach Greg McMillan believes that this approach is not appropriate for everyone. He says your first marathon can be more than just a foundation for future, more ambitious marathons. And he ought to know: one of his athletes, Brett Gotcher, just ran a 2:10:36 debut marathon in Houston.

McMillan spoke to us from his home 10 days after Gotcher’s breakthrough.

Competitor: When I ran my first marathon, more experienced runners advised me to set a conservative goal. But I really wanted to run a good time, so I set a challenging goal and went after it, only to explode into a million pieces around mile 18. Common scenario?

Greg McMillan: Very common. That’s what I did! The problem for us is that we didn’t train smart. We didn’t train enough; we didn’t train hard enough. Because we were good runners we assumed we would do well, because the pace looks easy, but in the end you have to put in specific work to get ready for the demands of the event. When you do that you have good performances, and when you don’t, sometimes the performances are not what we want.

As Brett Gotcher’s recent performance in Houston shows, it is possible to have a great debut marathon. But do you have to be at Brett’s level to run that aggressively in your first marathon, or can less gifted runners set their sites high as well?

If you’re very new to the sport, you should probably just try to get one in the bag and race for time in your second marathon. When you’re a beginner you just don’t have the training under your belt, so just finishing is the appropriate goal to set. When you’re more experienced, I think it’s very important that you set a realistic yet challenging goal.

Brett’s time was fast. 2:10 is fast. Most of us would love to run that time for 20 miles, much less 26.2. But the thing is, Brett was ready to run 2:09. We knew that from his training and from the racing he had done in his preparation. So while it seems like he was really aggressive in going for a fast time, he was prepared to do that.

The numbers I was seeing from training and racing, comparing him to other athletes I have coached that have done very well, it was pretty clear that I had a very narrow window of pace range that he could maintain. Now, for him, that’s sub-five-minute pace. For most of us, it’s not. But the same concept applies. You take the information you get from training, the information you get from tune-up races—with that information I think it’s fine to say, “Here’s my goal range. If I have a great day, I will run at the fast end of that range. If I have a regular day I’m in the middle. And if I have a less than good day, maybe I’ll be at the bottom of that range.”

Can you give me some specific examples of how a runner should gather information that will enable him to set a challenging yet realistic first marathon time goal?

There are several key workouts a person should do to give them an idea of what [pace] they can maintain. These would be workouts outside of the regular training that you’re going to do. For example, long runs are going to be part of your regular training to build up your endurance. But some of those runs may be a little bit shorter and they need to be really fast. You need to run hard and see what kind of pace you can maintain. For example, with Brett we did two 15-mile tempo runs. Those would start at about 30 seconds per mile slower than his marathon pace and then we would finish the last five miles trying to run at marathon pace or even faster if possible. So it’s a very intense workout. In the first one he averaged the equivalent of 4:55 per mile. (We’re at altitude so we have to make a little adjustment for a sea-level equivalent.) The second one was equivalent to 4:52. So that gave me a pretty good idea that he could run in that range.

These long tempo runs are one way to get an idea of the pace you can maintain over the marathon distance. We also did some shorter fast runs, like a regular tempo run. They might be three miles, four miles, five miles. And if he could maintain faster than goal pace by about, say, 15 seconds per mile, that also reinforced that his goal pace was good.

We also did a set of mile repeats: eight times a mile with a jog in between. And with those he was able to maintain a 5K to 10K effort that was equivalent to what he would need to be able to run for a 2:09 marathon.

When you get enough of those workouts under your belt, you start to feel more and more confident that you have a good pace range. And if you include some tune-up races, particularly a half marathon, you’re getting more data that gives you confidence in your ability.

On a more general level, what are the key training adjustments that a runner needs to make if he is experienced in shorter races and has set solid PR’s at those distances, but is stepping up to the marathon for the first time?

There are a couple of things. The first is mileage. You have to run a lot and you have to run frequently. It gets tough sometimes when you have work and a family and other commitments. But it’s very important that you log good mileage. It’s doesn’t have to be extreme mileage. You have to find your sweet spot; but it needs to be good mileage.

And the second component is that you need to do a lot of long runs. With Brett, for example, for the last two years plus he’s run 20-mile long runs. So his 2:10 performance was two-and-a-half years in the making. And I think for any runner who thinks, “Okay, I’m a pretty good half-marathoner and I want to carry that into the marathon,” you need to make the long run an important part of your yearly training cycle and not just something you do right before the marathon. The idea is to build that stamina and endurance over time.

Okay, so I’ve set an appropriate goal, I’ve done the right training, and now it’s time to execute. Given that the last few miles of a first marathon are uncharted territory for every runner, how do I not blow it?

As Brett prepared for the Houston Marathon, that was my main concern: How do I structure the training to give him some exposure to what he might feel at the end? You can’t exactly mimic it; there’s no way to do that except to race. So we did some super-long runs; he did a 24-, a 26-, and even a 28-mile run. Now, that only takes him three hours, so it’s a little different than other people running that long. And we did those really long tempo runs, where I was really trying to challenge him at the end to empty his tank and try to help him feel that fatigue.

In the race, I just tried to counsel him to respect the distance, but also trust himself. I told him, “Use your own inner judge when you’re running. You’ll get an idea of what’s right.” When you get in between 14 and 18 miles of a marathon, every runner has an idea of how the last few miles are going to go. Using that inner judge can really be helpful. Trust your training and race smart within your acceptable window. Don’t make the rookie mistake of “putting money in the bank”, so to speak, by running too fast in the first half.

The list of great runners who have had disappointing or disastrous first marathons is long. The marathon is a tough nut to crack, and it seems to take some runners a while to master the distance, no matter how smart they are. Do you think it’s a good idea to keep in mind when you’re running your first marathon, even as you try to do your best, that it doesn’t have to be your last, and if you don’t nail it this time, it’s not the end of the world?

I think that’s very good advice. Look at Brett. He ran 2:10:36, but we wanted to run 2:09 flat. So we could look at that as a bad performance. He did not do what he wanted to, even though it was a very good race. So we’re pleased with the race, but we’re also very unsatisfied. What we took away is that we learned a lot. When you try to push your body to the edge, when you’re trying to have a great performance, you have to accept that things may not go perfectly. But it gives you information for the next training cycle. There’s always a few things you can adjust to have a better race next time.