By coach Chris McClung
For those reading this blog in preparation for the Austin Marathon on Sunday, I applaud your bravery. Since the course was changed from a downhill screamer to the loop course we have today, most locals avoid their local marathon out of fear of those deadly Austin hills. While other locals are running scared to out of town races, you are facing this beast head-on with thousands of poor, naïve out-of-towners, who have no idea what they are getting into.
I have good news for you, though. I think this course, run correctly, can be nearly as fast as a flat course. It’s just damn tricky and requires near perfect execution in your race plan. There are two potential outcomes for you on Sunday. 1.Run smart, following a plan like the below, and you will crush the finish. Or, 2.Start too fast, falling into the booby traps of this race, and you will find yourself at the top of Duval around mile 22 curled up in the fetal position wishing you could roll downhill instead of walk or run. Which outcome will you choose?
If you choose outcome #1, then I suggest following a plan like the one below. It requires supreme patience early, but it’s the only way to take advantage of the generous downhills in the closing 6 miles of the race.
Instead of a mile-by-mile plan, I break the course into 6 sections, each section with its specific mission and pace guidance. Don’t worry so much about hitting a certain pace in each mile, but rather focus on executing an average pace within each section. Here is how I break it down:
Section 1: The Warm-up
Start to Mile 2.6 on Congress. The goal for this section is to “shorten the race.” By starting slowly, you turn a 26.2-mile race into a 23.6-mile race. Now, this is easier said than done because all of your normal physical and mental cues about pace will fail you in these opening miles. Adrenaline and the frenetic energy of your fellow racers will tempt you into getting sucked out too fast. Plus, booby trap #1 on the race course – the Guadalupe downhill from Mile 1 to 2 – will make it easy to run faster than you planned.
Don’t. Relax. Start slow and easier than you think you need to, and if you hit your target marathon pace in this stretch, then slow the f**k down.
[One side note on pacers: The Austin Marathon has some of the finest pacers of any marathon in the land. And, it’s no coincidence that most of them are Rogues. They, however, are instructed to run even paces throughout the race, regardless of the hills. They can do that because they are all trained to run marathons 30 minutes or more faster than their selected pace on marathon day. If you want to blow up on the course, start with your target pace group. If you want to run smart, I would suggest that you use them as a tool or reference point, but DO NOT plan to run with your target pace group. Instead, start at least 2 or 3 pace groups back of your target group and plan to progress throughout the race. If all goes according to the plan below, then you won’t reach or pass your target pace group until the final miles of the race. I submit to you that there is no other way to run this course and be successful.]
Section 2: Crushed on Congress?
Mile 2.6 to Mile 6. Many overlook this section of the course, but do so at their peril. This section of the course has the highest elevation gain per mile than any other section of the course. Those whose goal is to run the last 6 miles of the race at a snail’s pace will take this section too fast. The temptation is to hit your target marathon pace and hold it in spite of the uphill climb. Do so, and your race is done before you even hit mile 6. Instead, stay relaxed, progress to marathon EFFORT, not pace. Let the hills slow you down naturally, holding energy/power in reserve for later. If you do that, then you should be running no faster than 10 to 15 secs/mile slower than marathon pace.
Section 3: Slammin’ South First
Mile 6 to Mile 9.5. In this section, you drop ~250 feet as you scream down South First back to the river. Most people will run this either too aggressively going too fast, way too early in the race. Or, they will brake the whole way down with their quads, destroying them for later. You should do neither. Instead, stay relaxed, let gravity increase your pace to slightly faster than marathon pace, but do it with proper downhill running form – body over your feet, so that you aren’t braking and destroying your legs.
Section 4: The End of the Beginning
Mile 9.5 to 13.1. This is the Winsted-Enfield-Exposition section of the course which many of you fear the most. It has rolling hills the whole way and some of the toughest hills on the course. Essentially, you take the challenges of sections 2 and 3 and combine into one section. You have steep ups and downs and no single will be the same pace in this section. The main goal here is to conserve energy on the ups and relax on the downhills, so that you save your energy for later. Treat the hills as a gift reminding you to be conservative. Don’t fight them. Embrace them all the way to the half way point.
Section 5: Still Climbing?
Mile 13.1 to 19.75. Most people want to breathe a deep sigh of relief at mile 13.1, thinking the hills are behind them. But, they aren’t. These 6+ miles feel like a long, gradual climb, and essentially that’s what it is. Those who make mistakes here will force the pace/effort too early rather than staying in control and relaxed. Your pace should be +/- MGP but you should again let the slight ups and downs adjust your pace accordingly. Stay patient as long as you can, b/c the last 6 will be screaming fast for you, if you play your cards right.
In this section, you will also begin to face your biggest mental demons of the race, potentially on the long, annoying straight-away that is Great Northern. Be prepared for that – have power words or phrases and other mental strategies ready to maintain your focus.
Section 6: Road to Glory
Mile 19.75-26.2. Road to glory. You reach the northern most part of the course at the same time you reach the highest point on the course. It is literally all downhill from here, including the screaming fast section on Duval. Now, the biggest challenge is getting to this point with cards left to play. If you can avoid the early booby traps or at least outsmart them, then the last 6.45 miles will truly be the road to glory. If you can’t avoid those traps, then you will find yourself on a miserable slog to the finish. Those are the two extremes, and this course allows for very little in the middle.
The last 6 miles should be a progression run to the finish, picking it up each mile as you go and letting the downhills carry you where they can. There is an annoying climb in the final half mile up San Jacinto to the finish, but if you are running progression to that point, then it will be no big deal b/c it’s so close to the line. Your job is to execute the first 5 sections well, so you can close the deal when it counts.
If you’ve done everything right, then your plan should be to run the second half of the course 2-4 minutes faster than the first. Believe that this is possible, and then execute the plan one section at a time. The outcome will then take care of itself.
You are ready to go the distance! What you are doing is important! Remember your training! Be ready to fight! Study the plan! Execute the plan!