How I Took 27 Minutes Off My Marathon in 6 Weeks
The reasons it may or may not work for you
Running a marathon is seen by many as the epitome of running — the highest height, the crown jewel, the icing on the runner’s cake (mmmm, cake!). It’s 26.2 miles of ups and downs as your body struggles with hours of pounding feet and trying to absorb the calories and fluids you dump in so you don’t die (or wish you were dead) on the course.
I ran my first marathon after four years of running fairly consistently. With a few half marathons under my belt, as well as one awful trail run (I’m looking at you, Psycho Wyco), I had the background to go the distance. Or at least, I hoped I did!
First marathon results
It was as horrible as you imagine your first marathon is going to be. By mile 16 I was ready to be done; I was fighting back tears for the last few miles. When I finally finished, I just laid down on the grass and called my husband to come pick me up because, quite simply, I could not take a single extra step.
I finished in 5:27:34. Surprisingly, I was not in last place, but I was pretty close. I didn’t care; I was just thrilled to be finishing at all. This was the third time I had trained for a full marathon; the previous two times, I had gotten injured and decided to back down to the half marathon distance.
The next step
The more I thought about it, the more I thought I could have done a little better. I became pretty obsessed with running another marathon, as quickly as possible.
Running is one of those things that is so different for everyone. If you Google “How long should I wait between running marathons,” you’ll get results that explain the reasons why you should wait at least four to six months between marathons. There are a lot of great reasons, which I’ll outline later in my article. I didn’t think they applied to me, though, so that’s why I made the choice to try again so quickly.
After a few hours of reading, I decided that, against conventional wisdom, I’d go ahead and go for it.
The second marathon
I picked a race called Marathon to Marathon in Iowa. Running through cornfields in rural Iowa felt just like home since I trained on that same type of terrain around where I lived. It was just a tiny race — hardly any competitors or spectators either. Exactly the opposite of the race I’d run a few weeks earlier, where crowds were nearly constant and excited kids were waiting to high-five even the back of the pack runners like me.
The race was supposed to start at 6 a.m. It ended up being delayed because of lightning and rain and started at 7:30. Not a great start on a day that I was hoping to not only set a PR, but to get below 5 hours in the marathon.
I made it to the halfway point at about 2:27, and I knew that 5 hours was in my sights, but it would be close. At mile 18, I started cramping and needed to stop and stretch regularly for the rest of the race. At mile 25 there was a bugger of a hill — I mean, this thing looked like a mountain to me! I was seriously huffing and puffing and I’m sure I sounded like an elephant trying to get up that thing.
Somewhere after that point in the city of Marathon, I asked a man working the aid station how much further until the end.
“About a half-mile.”
I looked at my watch…and it said 4:56 and some change. I knew at that point, there was no way I was going to make my goal; I was in no shape to run the last half mile of a marathon in less than four minutes. I considered walking, which I really wanted to do, but something inside of me said, “Well…he might be wrong about the distance.” I dug deep and booked it as fast as I could at that point (which I’ll admit, wasn’t very fast at all).
He had to have been wrong about the distance because my official finish time was 4:59:55! Not only a PR, but I snuck in just under five hours too.
Reasons it worked for me
1. I didn’t run my hardest
My number one goal, in both races, was simply to finish. I didn’t train to finish in a certain time. The marathon training plan I used was Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 program (keep scrolling to get to the training plan at the bottom of the web page). It is incredibly simple and easy to follow — there’s no speedwork, no tempo runs. It’s all about building up distance, which is what I did.
2. I had a strong running base
I had already been running for four years when I tackled my first marathon. When you begin running, your body makes tiny adjustments to accommodate the pounding and repetitive motion. The more you run, the more your body has a chance to adjust.
These adjustments take time. That’s why even if you’re in great shape otherwise but attempt a marathon too early in your running career, you can still become injured. My strong base carried me through both marathons, and my body was already adjusted to running long distances from the years of running I already had under my belt.
3. I took it easy between the races
After the first marathon, I took a few days off. After that, I eased back into running. My longest run between the marathons was 16 miles, which I did at about the halfway point between the two.
I trusted in the training that I had been doing for the months leading up to my first marathon to carry me through my second. That’s not to say I sat on my butt for those six weeks because I definitely didn’t, but I also didn’t try to make any gains. My goal was to recover from my race and maintain my fitness, not add anything.
4. My mindset was different
The first time I ran a marathon, I was worried about finishing, worried about finishing under the cut-off time, worried that I wouldn’t make it for some reason, and have to start this training plan all over again.
The second time, I had the benefit of experience. I knew it was going to suck. I also knew I could do it. I knew what it felt like to hit the wall, and I also knew that I’d already completed a marathon this training round, so this second marathon was extra. It didn’t really cost me anything besides the entry fee.
I was more confident the second time around. I knew what my body could do and what it couldn’t do, and there was no pressure to perform.
Why it might not work for you
1. You trained for a specific time
If your training plan has you doing speedwork, you are probably training at a higher level than I was. This means you most likely finished your marathon much faster than I did, you were running more miles per week, and that your marathon was very hard on your body.
If this describes you, it’s probably best to take a longer time off between marathons. It takes time to recover from the kind of stress that going all out in a marathon puts on your body, and running two marathons so close together could result in injury or just disappointment, as you may not be faster the second time.
2. You’re a newer runner and a marathon is a stretch for you
If you just started running in the past year and manage to run a marathon, that’s wonderful! But without the years of training and your body adapting, you could set yourself up for injury by running another one so close to your first.
There’s no rush to get back out again; you have plenty of time to train for a second go-round with the marathon distance. Be proud of your accomplishment and let yourself recover. Going through the training cycle again will strengthen your ligaments, muscles, and bones and set you up to run injury-free.
3. You can’t allow yourself to recover
Running is hard, but sometimes NOT running can be even more difficult. I get it. That anxiety building, the need to do something meaningful with your body, letting that pressure valve open so you can actually sleep at night. There are really excellent reasons to run, not the least of which is simply dealing with mental health issues. But, if you can’t give your body the breathing room to recover, you shouldn’t attempt long distances so close together.
I’m a big fan of listening to your body and deciding to do what is best for you. That looks different for everyone who runs. Whatever you decide about running long distances back to back, don’t pressure yourself to perform. There is plenty of time to get faster, and there will be more marathons to run.