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Pacing Strategies for the Austin Marathon

Bell Wealth ManagementNow that the Austin Marathon is finally within sight (February 16th ), it’s time to start thinking about what your pace should be for either one of the two races. Other than months and months of solid, injury-free training and showing up on the starting line healthy and fit, the most critical aspect of running the Austin Marathon successfully will be proper pacing. Running a sane and proper pace is absolutely essential to meeting your goals and finishing strongly on Congress Avenue.

Go out too fast in the hilly, early miles and you’ll crumble in the final stretch. Go too slow at the start and you won’t achieve your time goals. Run the wrong sections of the course too hard and you’ll expend too much energy. Even if you know the perfect pace for your level of ability, failure to modify it in the face of weather, terrain or a competitive situation is also a recipe for failure.

Essentially, every Austin marathoner has one of three goals: (1) trying just to finish the darned thing, (2) going for a personal record or (3) racing against other runners, either to beat a competitor or to place in the age-group results.

The absolute worst way to run a marathon is without any plan at all on how to pace yourself. Even if you’re merely trying to finish Austin, you will still need a race day plan.

Here are the basic pacing strategies that experienced marathoners utilize. Pick one, practice it in the next month, then internalize it and attempt to execute it on race morning:

Even, steady effort. An even paced marathon means that every mile—from first to last–is run at approximately the same pace. Before the race, decide on your specific goal pace (based on your goals, recent races, your level of ability, the shape you’re in, the terrain and weather). Even though the first three miles are very hilly (steep downs, long, gradual ups), you’ll be fresh and should be able to run the early miles quite easily at your goal pace. Still, even if you can run a perfectly even-paced race, the last few miles of Austin will be a challenge. Then, you need to concentrate on maintaining your form and your speed. In theory, your last mile should be as fast as your first. The key is holding back and conserving your strength so you have something left in the end to finish strongly.

Start slow, finish strong. This is the best pacing strategy on the tough Austin Marathon course for inexperienced marathoners or for those whose goal is just to finish. This is the best strategy to save your energy and strength for later in the race. With this strategy, you break the marathon up into even segments. After the first major downhill in the first mile, the course heads south on Congress. This first segment is the the hardest part of the course, but the climb up Exposition and on up to Northcross Mall is no picnic either. But once you reach 16 miles, the course flattens our and if you have harbored your strength well, you can gradually pick up the pace over the final 10 miles. In theory, your final mile should be your fastest. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. But if you execute this strategy properly, it should prevent the last few miles from being agonizingly slow.

Build up speed. Again you break up the marathon into even segments with your first few miles as the slowest (slower than your overall goal pace). But after those early miles, usually on the S. 1st Street downhill, you speed up to your overall goal pace and attempt to hold this pace to the finish. This is risky because even though you start slowly, you finish faster than normal and it’s easy to tire on some of the tough uphills and slow in the final stretch to the finish.

Aggressive, fast start, bank some time and hold on. This is the No. 1 mistake novice marathoners make—starting too fast and then fading to a much slower pace in the final miles. Some runners also make the mistake of thinking they can “bank’ a few early miles (often on S. 1st Street downhill)—running faster than goal pace—and then holding on. This strategy rarely works for any but the most experienced marathoners and it doesn’t even work for most of them either. On the hilly Austin Marathon course, this strategy is suicide.

Start quick and then maintain in the middle miles. The idea is to get off to a good, solid start, but fall back after a mile or two to your goal pace and then still be able to finish strong. This is a good strategy for veteran racers who are competitive and trying to place well in their age-group. It also allows you to build some early momentum which you can hopefully carry over into the tough final miles. But it’s risky. You must back off and adjust to your goal pace after only a mile or two on Congress. If you don’t adjust soon enough, you will have committed the cardinal sin of going out way too fast and revert to your survival shuffle much too early.

Negative pacing. In a negative paced marathon, you run the last half of the race faster than the first half. This is the pacing strategy that works best in any marathon, especially Austin which has plenty of major uphills in the first 16 miles. If you can run the early miles extremely easy and get over the major hills on Congress and Exposition in good shape, you should have plenty left for the flats and downhill sections in the last 10 miles and actually run the final 13 miles faster than the first. It sounds simple enough, but negative splits are difficult to execute because it entails a great deal of patience and sensitivity to race pace. Even if you don’t actually run the second half faster, if you can run close to it—and don’t die—it will be successful.

All these pacing strategies sound good in theory, but in a race as long as a marathon there are all sorts of factors that can throw your game off. The three most common obstacles are hills, wind and heat. Trying to run the same race pace effort up a hill, into a headwind or on a warm, humid day (such as 2005) will definitely come at a cost by sapping the very energy you are trying to conserve. So you’ll have to adjust on the fly.

The Austin Marathon will have mile markers and clocks at every mile but it’s a running time. So wear a runners’ watch, and check your actual time at each mile marker and adjust your pace accordingly. If you’ve gone out too fast, relax and slow down. But do it early.

It’s only natural to go out too quickly. Recognize that and pay careful attention to the first three miles on the big hills along Congress. Go out easy and controlled and once on the long South 1st Street downhill, you can easily get back on your goal pace.

If you had a poor start and have passed the early miles at too slow a pace, pick it up on South 1st, but only do so gradually. It’s a long, long race and you’ll have plenty of time on flat or downhill sections to make up ground.

Once you get to the starting line in front of Bob Bullock on race morning for the Austin Marathon, you’ll still have to assess the weather, how you feel and other factors. That’s why there isn’t any one strategy that works in every marathon for every marathoner. If there was, the marathon wouldn’t be as much of a challenge as it is.