How I ran a sub-3-hour Marathon.

How I ran a sub-3-hour Marathon.

Image for postParis Marathon 2014

In early 2014, I started running and a couple of months later, I ran my first marathon in Paris. I was actually preparing for an ultra-marathon (UTMB OCC first edition) later in 2014. So I had to try and run the marathon distance first.

I was so inexperienced, I managed to hurt my knees before the race which forced me to run wearing a knee band. I ran wearing a trail shoe which I bought for the UTMB OCC ? Salomon SpeedCross 3 ? and I ended with big bloody blisters on both feet. Yet I managed to achieve my goal and finished in exactly 4 hours!

Image for postParis Marathon 2014 Strava Activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/215879238

From that moment, I was hooked on running. But I was more into trail and ultra-distance running because of my love of the mountains.

A couple of months later, I moved to Berlin and I secured a bib for the fastest marathon course. I managed to finish it in 3:28:50. It was such a huge improvement after only 5 months of training and by following a simple heart rate based training plan on Garmin Connect.

Image for postBerlin Marathon 2014

The motivation

In 2015, I realized that I ran a couple of marathons and a couple of ultra marathons. But I never ran any shorter races! I decided to go for the half marathon in Berlin and I set a tight goal of 90 mins. Back then, I was preparing for 2 ultra races ? TransGranaCanaria Advanced 85km and Madeira Island Ultra Trail a mighty 115km across the island of Madeira! The half marathon was in between with very little speed work. Yet, I managed to achieve my goal and finished in 1:29:23. At this point, I thought why not push further and run a sub 3 hours marathon? I was putting in a lot of training volume on the trails for the long races and just before the short road races, I?d do some speed workouts and it worked pretty well so far.

The first attempt

In September 2015, I ran Berlin Marathon again???it passes at my doorstep, so why not! It was only 4 weeks after UTMB CCC, so I took the first week to recover then I tried to focus on speed workouts to pick up the pace. And this time it didn?t work. I ended up running 3:17:25 which was an expected disappointment. But I got over it, I was doing great on the trails and I wasn?t really into marathon training.

The second attempt

In 2018, I secured another bib for the Berlin Marathon thanks to my employer. And I remembered my long-sought goal I failed to achieve in 2015. Ironically the marathon was only a couple of weeks after UTMB CCC again which made things more tricky. So I adjusted my training plan to include a lot of marathon specific training. I needed to focus on quality workouts that will improve my speed to achieve my marathon goal without sacrificing the high volume and hard effort on the trails. And because I?m training by myself, I did a lot of research online and eventually came across a simple and brilliant training plan which consisted of 3 workouts:

  • Tempo run at a pace faster than marathon pace (4:00 min/km)
  • 800m intervals (at pace 3:45 min/km)
  • Easy long run ending at marathon pace effort (4:15 min/km)

All 3 workouts started easily and gradually increased the distance/repetitions. I managed to fit them in during the week with another hill repeats session if possible, a long hilly trail run on Saturday and if I can still catch my breath, an easy recovery run on Sunday to start the new training cycle. It was unwise, intense, and hell during the summer of 2018 to do those high-intensity workouts. And I couldn?t even pick up the pace a lot of times for the tempo/marathon effort long runs. Yet, I still thought just because I did the workouts, I?d be able to run a sub-3-hour marathon. Also running UTMB CCC ? in which I injured my quads ? a couple of weeks before the marathon made things very complicated.

I ran the marathon with my ambitious goal and the hope that my training will pay off. And I did manage to run the first half in about 1:28 which qualifies me to finish in 3 hours had I kept that pace. But after the 25th km, I started to collapse and I was slowing down with every kilometre! I eventually stopped and walked a lot to finish in 3:12:49, only 5 mins faster than 3 years before!

Image for postBerlin Marathon 2018 ? Strava Activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/1845150355

It was another disappointment and a moment of truth. A sub-3-hour marathon isn?t easy. The speed workouts alone are brutal, stressful, and mentally demanding. In that same year, I managed to finish 3 x 100+ km ultras in less than 2 months to gain all qualification points for UTMB 2019. Yet I failed to run a marathon in less than 3 hours. But I didn?t give up. I registered for the Paris marathon ? April 2019 ? where it all began 5 years ago!

The training plan

I started to train again following the same training plan with some tweaks to make it more effective. It was clear that the plan was too simple to work straight away and I was struggling with speed.

I started by varying the interval workout. The old plan had only 800m intervals; start with 2 of them, climb up to 10 intervals, keep doing them a couple of weeks then decrease the number of intervals towards the race. I added different distances to my interval workout and adjusted the speed accordingly:

  • 16 x 200m with 30s rest at 3:00 min/km or faster
  • 16 x 400m with 60s rest at 3:15 min/km or faster
  • 8 ? 10 x 800m with 2 mins rest at 3:30 min/km or faster
  • 6 ? 8x1000m with 2 mins rest at 3:30 ? 3:45 mins/km
  • 4 x 1600m with 2 mins rest at 3:45 min/km or faster
  • 4 x 2000m with 2 mins rest at 3:45 mins/km or faster

I also decreased the recovery between each interval and sometimes I did pyramid intervals as follows:

  • 1600m at 3:45 min/km, 2?3 mins rest
  • 800m at 3:30 min/km, 2 mins rest
  • 2 x 400m with 60s rest at 3:15 min/km
  • 4 x 200m with 30s rest at 3:00 min/km
  • 2 x 400m with 60s rest at 3:15 min/km
  • 800m at 3:30 min/km
  • 1600m at 3:45 min/km

Because most of my marathon training was during the winter, I did some of those intervals on the treadmill with 1?2% incline which helped me stick to the pace and swim in my sweat later on ?.

As for the tempo runs, I pushed harder. The plan was to run at a pace of 4 min/km and keep adding 1?2km every week until I run a half marathon in 1:25 ? pace 4:00 min/km. And since I already had a very good base from my previous training cycle, I was going as fast as I can on those runs for as long as I can, but also trying to finish the whole distance. I ended up running my fastest 10km (38:44) and my fastest half marathon (1:25) in training on my own!

I also made sure to include a hill session at least twice a month. Initially, my intention was to improve my speed on the climbs during ultras, but it did help a lot for my marathon training.

And for the long run ending with marathon pace effort ? it was a tricky workout for me because I was already doing a long and intensive run on the trails every week. So I tried as much as possible to stick with it. But when I was worn out, I just went for a long easy run. And sometimes I sacrificed my trail run with a long run ending with marathon pace.

Image for postTraining log for the few weeks leading to Paris Marathon 2019.

The third attempt

On the 14th of April 2019, at 8:35 AM I started my 5th marathon. I was feeling very nervous and arrived a bit late to the start line. It was super crowded and I spent a lot of time trying to drop my bag. I didn?t have enough time to warm-up so I just ran to the start trying to catch the 3-hour pacer that I wanted to stick with! Because of the crowds on the Champs-lyses, I was battling to get to the 3-hour gate, but it was too late. The race already started and I managed to sneak from below the fences and immediately started to run hoping that I?ll see the pacer and stick with him. I never really managed to do so! So I just went on my own.

Because I know that GPS can screw me up sometimes, I used the pace chart on my wrist band to make sure I?m going as planned. I was actually feeling very good and it was pretty cold that morning so I went a bit faster than expected. After a few kilometres, I realized that I didn?t go to the toilet before the race so I stopped for 30 seconds at the 11th km to relief myself ? and I?m glad I did that! I was a little behind schedule but I tried to only push slightly every kilometre to avoid wasting energy. And eventually, 6kms later I was back on track.

Unlike in Berlin, there are water bottles in Paris which are easier to drink from than plastic cups. I picked one from every single aid station and made sure I had at least one sip even though it was cold and I wasn?t thirsty. I also had 5 GU energy gels with me that I ate during the race. This was my fuel, nothing more!

At the half marathon mark, my watch showed 1:28:20. I kept speeding up until around the 30km mark where I was 2 mins faster than I should be, so I decided to slow down a bit and stick with the actual marathon pace (4:15 min/km) since it was only 12km to go and I had more than 120 seconds to spare ? That?s 10 seconds per kilometre. After the 35km mark, the real race started and I was forced to slow down. Yet, for the first time in the marathon, I didn?t stop nor did I collapse. I still had enough time to make it in 3 hours. But I was barely at the edge.

At the 40km mark, I was a few seconds behind the expected time of 2:51 mins on my pace chart and I was still slowing down. But the finish line is less than 9 mins away! I stuck to my pace for one more kilometre and went all out on the last one. I couldn?t hear or feel the crowds because of my loud breathing. 400m to go, I took the final turn and I was able to see the finish line! I pushed even further, looked at my watch to see if I?ll make it, then I realized that I?m going as fast as I can anyway so I kept pushing. A few seconds later, I reached the finish line and my watch showed 2:59:52!

Image for postMarathon de Paris 2019 ? Strava Activity: https://www.strava.com/activities/2289664879

I was so overwhelmed. Finally, a 4 years old dream came true after all the hard effort and training. I was super happy that I took that wise decision to intentionally slow down a bit. Had I kept going that fast, I would?ve probably collapsed before the finish line and missed the 3-hour goal.

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