Chasing a BQ Using the Hanson Marathon Method: the Base Period

South Beach, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

In my last few posts, I’ve highlighted important nuances I missed the first time I experimented with the Hanson Marathon Method. I then gave some context to help show how three preliminary decisions can determine whether yours is a positive or negative experience.

Now that it’s behind me, I want to share what I learned as I completed the base period.

I chose the Beginner’s program in spite of my previous marathon experience because I needed to build a good base after a long time off.

I ought to mention, however, another factor that has proved to be significant in shaping my choices each week of the program. My wife is my running buddy. That’s been central to our identity as a couple ever since we met in college — back in the days when 10K road races were new to most American cities and I bought us matching Bill Rodgers sweat suits (yes, I actually did that!).

We’ve always run together. Except that is, when I suffered a major IT band injury and she carried on solo, finishing two marathons without me, and then herself suffered a serious and long-lasting foot injury. For the last three years, we’ve thought she may never run again.

This January, we went to the local track, where she began the long road back on a cold blustery day. We walked/jogged short intervals together and soon discovered that the injury didn’t flare up as long as she kept the terrain flat and her pace gentle. Using fitness running schedules from Daniels Running, she humbly re-built her jogging endurance from one to two, then three, then five minutes. It took months. The day she completed her first half hour run, three years after the injury, she cried with joy.

That’s when I proposed that we run a September half marathon together. It was audacious. Impossible. And, characteristically, we decided to try.

The fact that the joy of running for me is intertwined with the love of my life had a huge impact on how I tackled the base period for my marathon goal. For my running buddy is training for a different race, a different pace, starting without a base. How could we possibly train together?

I’ve always thought the way my wife and I run together is a great metaphor for our relationship. Since I have much longer legs, my natural pace is faster than hers. During training runs when the right pace is essential, I usually orbit around her. Typically, I’ll run in the opposite direction until I’m 100–200 meters behind her, reverse course in order to overtake her, run about 200 meters ahead, and then repeat the orbit. We start and finish together, and we’re always within sight of each other. That’s how we learned, many years ago, to run as a couple even as we ran at our own paces.

Of course, that means I cover significantly more distance whenever we run together. I simply factor that extra distance into my training. On weekday runs, it’s rarely more than a few kilometers. On longer runs, I calculate the head start she needs in order for me to overtake her at the optimal point so that the extra orbiting distance isn’t a concern. We’ve been training together in this way for so many years that we make the needed adjustments reflexively.

The Hanson base period for beginning marathoners last six weeks and starts off with easy running of 2–3 miles, ultimately building to six miles. That ramp rate was ideal for my wife, given her recovery from injury. If your fitness level exceeds the program’s starting mileage, however, Hanson recommends running your comfortable easy run distance until the program catches up with you. For that reason, I began my base period with daily 7km runs. As my wife ran her prescribed distances at her pace, my orbiting around her made it easy for me to hit my goal, too.

So both of us completed the base period by the book, though we ran much different distances. She did the prescribed buildup from 2–3 miles, while I began with 4.5 miles and did not increase until the beginner’s program assigned the first 5-mile run.

I’d like to report that the base period was universally easy, but it wasn’t. Our base period included daily runs while on vacation at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina (see image from beach run above), and the weather here in upstate New York was steamy throughout July. What’s more, my business travel to Austin and the Midwest took me to temps above 100F. A perfect storm of poor fitness, age, heat, and humidity turned lots of those easy runs into real struggles. Many times I wondered how in the world I would finish a marathon given that a 5-mile summer run seemed impossible to complete.

Two learnings kept me going.

The first was the Hanson emphasis on running the right pace at the right time. To achieve the purpose of the run — the physiological benefits of easy running — it is imperative that the runs be truly easy. I tended to run easy runs too fast, thinking more was better. After studying the Hanson’s teaching on easy running, I made a game of seeing how slowly I could run without sacrificing form. The base period was easy as soon as I learned to make my easy runs easy.

The second was about running in heat. I’d read about the effects before, of course, but I’d never taken them seriously. But the combo of summer heat (above 85F) and humidity (above 60%) affects one’s pace by as much as 3 minutes/mile.

Taking the heat seriously meant getting comfortable with running by feel rather than the clock. Once I mellowed on pace and focused on a steadily easy effort, the base period runs seemed both physically and mentally easier. What’s more, in spite of a few missed runs and lots of very slow running, my fitness improved steadily as I carefully re-established my base (the blue line on chart below denotes fitness).

The surprising news seen retrospectively is that the Hansons base period prepared me well for the first week of the speed phase. In week six there’s a prompt increase in prescribed volume from 24 to 39 miles. Suddenly there are multiple 8-mile days. That did not seem possible to me as I worked my way through all the easy runs. How was I going to adjust in one week to the increased volume when speed-work begins?

But indeed it was sufficient. And so I learned a new lesson that would prove critical as I progessed through the program: “trust your training.” I’ll tell that story in my next post describing the speed phase.

Happy running!

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