At the beginning of a race, we feel great. We've fueled, we've hydrated, we've rested. For a marathon, we've had a nice, long taper and our legs are raring to go. Mentally, it is very hard to hold back. You are thinking to yourself, "I might as well run strong now...I'll slow down later, no matter what."
Remember this: Setting out to do positive splits is a self fulfilling prophecy. If you go out fast, hoping to take advantage of your early strength, odds are you WILL slow down in the later miles. That is best case. There is also the chance you will run out of steam altogether. Going out too fast taxes the muscles early and uses up your muscle glycogen early. This causes negative feelings. Seasoned runners can run this way, because they know how to deal with feeling lousy toward the end of the race. Sometimes elite runners will go out fast, hoping to force competitors to go out faster than they should.
I was guilty of this strategy two weeks ago. I went out fast early, taking advantage of the downhill in the early miles along with my great mood. Mentally, I kept "banking" my time, knowing that I had several minutes to spare for my goal. As my glycogen depleted and my energy waned, I saw that bank of time dwindle away. Early on, Laura and I even talked about how fast we were going and mentioned that we knew people that had done it successfully. Just because others can do it, doesn't mean that I am meant to. I need to learn to have confidence in my race plan and stick to it. Once I can figure out how to do it, I can better coach people to do the same.
The best way to run a race is running an even effort (constant pace). Figure out what your average pace for the race will be, and start out at that pace. If there are hills, you should take those into account.
"A good rule of thumb for uphill of 100 ft/mile gain is to add 20 to 30 seconds/mile to your average pace while on steep uphill of 200 ft/mile add 40 to 70 seconds/mile. For downhill, subtract 15 to 20 seconds/mile for 100 ft/mi and 20 to 40 seconds for 200 ft/mile."*Personally, I have a hard time doing math in my head during a hard run. That is why a pace bracelets or temporary tattoos are often helpful, especially in a marathon. I think if I would have started out at 9:05 pace like I had originally planned, I might have met my goal of finishing under four hours. I'll never know. I am pretty sure that if I would have started out at 9:30-9:40, I would have had around the same finish time (4:16), but felt much better at the end. The best thing about last month's marathon is how much I learned from it.
Often the best results come from negative splits. This is a tough one to plan for. No one really wants to start out slower than your goal pace. That is why negative splits are often achieved when someone reaches a stretch goal. Some people are able to do this quite nicely, however. Negative splits are very powerful psychologically. You feel strong and pass people in those last miles. It may even lead to even faster splits. That is what happened to me during the Carlsbad Half Marathon when I achieved my PR. That race is still my favorite race ever. I felt a euphoria at the finish line unlike any other race. I ran negative splits during that race, having my fastest mile the last mile of the race. This happened because I started out conservatively in the beginning.
The lesson from all this is to plan your race. If you just go out and run it, you'll likely start out too quickly. Proper training and preparation will give you everything you need to run a great race for you. I will remind myself of these things as I prepare for AFC in August. Last year I ran out of gas. This year I want to finish strong.
* "Marathoning- Start to Finsh" by Patti and Warren Finke.