For Marathoners, Short Races Can Be Good Races
So, here we are, less than 100 days from the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, but still with enough time to...[ad alert]...sign up for the official TCS New York City Marathon 12-Week Training Program! Looking ahead at three months' worth of training, you might think that you need to focus just on 26.2, and that you should hold off on shorter, faster races until after November 5.
But in my experience, there's really no reason to wait until November to pin on a race bib. Running fast in a 5K, or even something as short as a road mile, can give you a boost physically and psychologically, and these races can serve as a good supplement—but not a substitute—for all that longer, slower mileage throughout the weeks.
Before we begin, though, a disclaimer: I am not a coach at New York Road Runners (although I have an RRCA certification), nor can I give you a detailed training program that will 100% guarantee that you'll hit your goal PR. What I can do—at least, what I hope to do—is to give you peace of mind in knowing that, in the middle of all of the long runs and tempos you'll do over the next three months, it's okay to step down in distance every once in a while and try to run fast.
For Some Background Info
Last year, I ran a marathon in New York City in November—but not the TCS New York City Marathon. (I was a little busy with work that day.) In preparing for what was my first official 26.2, I did the standard marathoner-type training: Building up the weekend long run from 12 to 15 to 18 to eventually 20, throwing in a couple half-marathons along the way to get a feel for racing, and so on.
But in that same build-up, I also raced shorter distances, like the Percy Sutton Harlem 5K Run in August and the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile in September. (Yes, I ran the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff in October, too, but a five-miler doesn't quite prove my point here.)
I can't say it's common to be racing 5Ks and road miles during a marathon build-up, but what I did learn is: You can try out race strategies on a much smaller scale, and you can race without really worrying about the result, because your real race is still a few weeks away.
How You Can Test Out New Tactics
Going into the Percy Sutton Harlem 5K, my goal was to go out slower than normal and run faster later. This was something I, as someone who grew up with that Steve Prefontaine "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift" quote ingrained in my head, did rarely in races.
But that was high school, and today is today: The goal was to stay relaxed, don't press much on the hill in the first mile, let the field go, and then let it fly in the last mile or so. Here's how it went:
There we go! Negative splits! Mission accomplished—for that day.
In only three miles, I got an idea of how I should feel throughout the stages of a longer race: Relaxed early, keeping it steady in the middle, and then, once it's in the 20-25 percent of the race, go with what you've got.
If it helps illustrate the point, sometimes I visualize a race's effort level like a tachometer in a car—staying below that red zone early, and as the finish is getting closer, starting to wind up the pace until, finally, you're in that last quarter-mile and it's time to put the pedal to the metal.
So when marathon day came around, and I found myself 100 meters back of a group only one mile in to the race, I didn't panic. I had a long way to go, and a lot of time to make up that ground; there was no reason to try to run 10 seconds ahead of my target pace with 95 percent of the race to go, so I stayed within myself. Ten admittedly lonely miles later, I caught back up to that group and kept right on going—and ended up negative splitting the second half of the race.
How You Can Race Without Real Consequences
No Rules! No Parents! Do Whatever You Want!
On the other side of racing shorter distances, you can sign up and show up without really having to worry about how the race goes.
Growing up on cross country and track teams, there was always that nervous feeling of pressure to do well, and that you'd be letting your teammates down if you had a bad race. My college coach would tell us to "Just have fun out there—just get out and race," but it can be hard to really "enjoy" racing when you're worried about losing your top-seven spot on the team.
But as a post-college adult in the road racing world, that pressure—for better or worse—isn't there. There are club points races to give you that feeling of competing as a team, sure, but for a "free agent" like myself, I use that lack of pressure to my advantage. Before a race, I will tell myself, "I am here because I want to be here." No one's forcing me to be here, and no one's waiting around to drive me home after the race (like my parents had to do dozens of times in high school). This is 100% on me.
So a week after the Percy Sutton Harlem 5K Run, I was back on the streets—or in this case, the avenues—for the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile.
Would I run at or close to my lifetime best? No!
Would my friends and extended family know the difference if I ran a 10-second PR or a 10-second PW (personal worst)? Probably not!
With that mentality, I lined up at 80th Street, waited for the starting horn, and just went with the flow of the race using that same mentality from the week before: Stay relaxed early, don't press much on the hill in the early part, and once you're in the last quarter, go for it.
The result? I matched my PR...from high school. It's still an accomplishment, right?
But more importantly, I put myself in the right frame of mind to enjoy myself. I finished my heat, switched out of my race kit, and watched as 40-, 50-, 60-year-old runners raced down to Grand Army Plaza. Then, of course, came the grand finale—the pro heats—as I got to watch some of the best runners in the world come back from the Olympics in Rio to race through the streets in NYC.
(^ I took these photos for NYRR's social media team that day.)
By the time the event was done, it was maybe 2:00 in the afternoon. I had gotten my run in, and I had the rest of the weekend to enjoy.
...but I still put in 14 miles the next day, because c'mon, I had a marathon to train for!