Qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon

It took roughly 18 months and three consecutive attempts, but I finally managed to qualify for the Boston Maraton.

It’s the most physically exhausting thing I’ve ever done. I was so delirious after finishing that I spent 90 minutes snuggling a mylar blanket in the medical tent, apologizing to volunteer nurses as I puked up citrus Clif Shots into ziploc baggies. Champion stuff!

Two Options: Run Fast or Fundraise

There are two ways a runner can register for the Boston Marathon. The first is by participating in the official charity program. The second is by running a qualifying time at a certified course within a 12-month period prior to the opening of registration. Qualifying times are on a sliding scale based on age and gender, and for a 37 year old male that time is 3 hours and 10 minutes. Complete an offical qualifier marathon within that time in the past year, you can register. Run a 3:10:01, try again next year.

But running a qualifying time does not guarantee acceptance to the race, only the opportunity to register. Boston ensures the fastest runners are selected first from the pool of applicants until their age and gender quota is reached. This means that the accepted qualification time is often faster than the qualification time. For the 2015 race, if you were a thirty-something male who qualified with a 3:09:00 you did not make the cut.

The Boston Athletic Association has a list of the men’s 2015 accepted qualification times.

In the past two marathons I’ve run, mile 23 has been catastrophic for me. The biggest challenge in preparing for Ventura was figuring out how to avoid hitting the wall in the last few miles of the race.

I’ll get into the details later, but the changes I made to both my pre-race diet and in-race calorie strategy paid off. I was definitely fatigued at mile 23, but pushed through the final three miles to finish at 3:08:04, an 8 minute improvement over my previous PR.

Lessons Learned Along the Way

Training for a marathon takes time. There’s really no way around it. Believe me, I’ve tried winging it. Bad idea, unless you feel like torturing yourself for a few hours.

Over the past year and a half I’ve logged roughly a month in training for each hour spent racing. With each race I’ve learned a bit more and improved my process. Here’s some marathon tips and tricks I picked up along the way.

Be Kind to Your Feet

The single most important piece of equipment are your shoes. If you have no idea what your personal pronation type is, make time to visit a proper running store and get a basic gait analysis. Bring your current running shoes with you, the way they’re worn can provide info on your biomechanics.

Once you find a shoe that works for you, make sure you replace them at an appropriate interval. On average this ranges between 300–500 miles. Old shoes can be a source of knee pain and other nagging injuries, even without any visible defects, so do yourself a favor and upgrade when it’s time.

Spend some money on a few pairs of decent socks. Your feet will thank you, particularly when you begin to hit longer training runs. Blisters really suck, and good socks help keep them at bay. Drymax socks work well for me. If you do get blisters, Kinesio-Tex can be a lifesaver.

Oofos slippers are like pillowy marshmallows for your tired feet. I was skeptical, but trust me, the comfort they provide is well worth the geriatric fashion statement.

Quick cosmetic note, after months of training and racing your feet will develop calluses and some toenails will likely fall off. It’s not painful, it just sort of happens. They eventually grow back, but your foot modelling career will have to wait.

Avoid the Bore

Running can be a bit boring, particularly if you’re training alone. Some people need music to run with, but I’ve found audio books to be a great companion, particularly during longer training runs.

I’ll usually complete 2 or 3 audio books while preparing for a race, and have found that biographies and fiction work best for me. They’re great motivators too, particularly if I’m keen on the latest plot twist.

I tend to train alone because of my schedule, but joining a training team can provide some extra motivation and comraderie. For longer runs I’ll try to rally a friend or two. It’s nice to have a friend to stride alongside for a few hours and helps to keep you accountable.

Quantify Yourself

If you’re serious about your training, then invest in a dedicated GPS watch. You could also use a running app like Strava on your smartphone, but this can be a bulky alternative.

I use the Garmin Forerunner 220 along with Garmin Connect to create, schedule, and track all my training workouts. I’ll just begin dropping them into the calendar, working backwards from the planned race day. These are then synced to the Forerunner and a separate training calendar I maintain in Google.

This initial process takes a few hours to complete, but it’s only required once. The calendar allows me to review each week and plan accordingly. When it’s time to run, I already have the day’s workout waiting for me on my watch.

One feature I particularly like about the Garmin system is the ability to set pace zones per workout. This is helpful if your training runs require certain paces, and the Forerunner can alert you if you’re too fast or too slow. I’ve found this feature to be really helpful for pace runs, as well as tempo and interval workouts.

I sometimes use a heart rate monitor to get some additional data into Strava. It’s straightforward to setup and detected automatically by the Forerunner after the first connection. When heart rate data is collected Strava will compute a “Suffer Score” based on your best performance pace zones. It’s mostly a vanity metric, but knowing I experienced some “Epic” suffering in Ventura makes me feel better about my cameo in the medical tent.

When a run is completed, I sync the workout from my watch with the Garmin Connect app on my mobile phone via Bluetooth. This automatically pushes the workout to Strava, where I can add notes if necessary. As race day approaches, I’m able to review my entire training history to see how well I’ve stuck to the plan.

Strava has the advantage of also being a social network. If you’re training by yourself, staying accountable to a 3-month plan can be a challenge. Connecting with friends on Strava provides some additional motivation for lacing up and getting out there.

Fuel Your Tank

I tend to maintain a whole-foods based diet naturally, so I don’t make any big changes during the majority of my training. However, two weeks prior to the race I’ll start making some specific adjustments.

For ten days I’ll alter my diet to ensure I get 65% of my calories from healthy fats. This includes things like cheese, eggs, nuts, avocados, olive oil and salmon. Then, three days prior to the race I’ll begin to carbo load, switching my diet to get 70% of my normal calories from carbohydrates like brown rice, oats, and pasta.

The Running Endurance Calculator can help you to determine the amount of carbohydrates you’ll theoretically need in order to achieve your target time. There are some tips in the calculator’s footer to help interpret the data.

Once you have a kcal target, plan your meals accordingly to ensure you eat what’s required to hit the goal. Remember, this is above and beyond your normal caloric intake and should consist of moderate or high-glycemic carbohydrates. The loading should be complete 12-hours prior to the race to ensure muscles have the appropriate time to absorb the glycogen.

Fueling on the Course

How you manage your in-race nutrition can also be a critical factor. I failed twice to do this properly and it took those experiences to tune my strategy. There’s tons of advice and recommendations on what to do in-race, and everyone’s biochemistry is different, so I’ll just share what worked for me in Ventura.

The Ventura Marathon started at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, but at 2:00 a.m. I woke up to eat a serving of overnight oats then went back to sleep. This is the last thing I ate prior to the race.

At 4:30 a.m. I woke up, had a small coffee to get my motor running and continued to drink water until roughly one hour before the gun. I then drank a Beet Elite packet and headed for the starting line.

I’ll typically take a small water with me to start, mostly to sip and keep my mouth from drying out as I wait. About 15–20 minutes prior to the race start I’ll try to find a spot to take a last minute pee break. Ventura is a rather small and loosely organized race, so it wasn’t hard to find dark corner. In the final minutes before the gun I felt a bit nervous, but otherwise fresh and relaxed.

Out on the course I took water at each aid station I encountered, which was roughly every 1.5 miles. Normally I would alternate between water and sports drink, but I had never drank the brand used on the course, so I stuck to water.

Starting around the 10k mark I ate a Clif Shot energy gel packet every 3–4 miles (~20–30 minutes). I’d take them right before I encountered an aid station so I had water to wash it down. The important thing to remember is that your body requires time to digest, so if you wait until you physically feel a need, it’s already too late.

I highly recommend using longer training runs to experiment with your race nutrition. Treat them like a race day event and feed your body the same gels and fluids you anticipate using for the marathon. Race day is not the time to discover that Gatorade gives you a stomach ache.

Pace Teams

If you are aiming for a specific finishing time, I definitely recommend running a marathon that provides pace groups. Having a pacer to support and pull you through the tougher moments of the race is invaluable, particularly after mile 20 when the real race begins.

Usually these groups form organically at the starting line, with pace leaders holding some type of pace flag so you can find them in the crowd. With a good pace leader the race becomes eerily easy… just stick with them until the finish line! An act that’s often easier said than done.

The Afterparty

Remember those Oofos I recommended? Prepare to live in them. And definitely take advantage of any free massages offered after the race.

Then crack a beer and celebrate!


Originally published at ckalima.com.