Ready to crush your goals in 2019? Regardless of where you’ve set your sights, be it your first 10k, half or full marathon, now’s the time to think ahead, plan your races and make it happen!
When I first started running, I had a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, in addition, I wanted to become an Abbott World Marathon Major Six Star Finisher. Fast forward to 2016, I had completed five out of the six World Marathon Majors and I had one left to complete, Boston. Knowing to Boston Qualify (BQ) would be a challenge, I decided to work hard, improve my training and in 2016, I made it happen.
In 2017, my blog post, “10 Things I Did to Qualify for the Boston Marathon” received a lot of positive feedback. Now having run Boston, I’d like to revisit the topic and add personal insight.
My Road to a BQ
October 9, 2016, I ran the Steamtown Marathon in 3 hours 36 minutes and 28 seconds, which was, at the time, a Boston Marathon qualifying time for my age group. The Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) was my first, back in 2010, finishing in 5 hours and 48 minutes. Being 4’11” tall and not athletic by any means, I work a little harder to get to the finish line. After the MCM, my subsequent marathon finish times improved with each race until I plateaued at 3 hours 59 minutes, happening three times in a row. I couldn’t break it. Some marathons after my PR of 3:59 even got slower. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get any faster. Tweaking a few things in my training, eventually led me to a Boston Qualifier.
For details on what is required to run the Boston Marathon, click here. (Below pictures: My first marathon, the 2010 Marine Corps Marathon before and near the finish; finishing the 2016 Steamtown Marathon; finishing the 2018 Boston Marathon).
“How does someone my size, with a non-athletic background, who is not a naturally fast runner go from running an almost six-hour marathon to 3:36, leading to a BQ?”, you might ask. Trust me, it didn’t happen overnight but with fortitude and a “never give up” mindset, it did. If you’re someone who has tried and failed many times, and has lost hope for running the Boston Marathon, I’d like to reassure you, as I would my younger self, it’s going to be okay, don’t give up.
Here are 10 things I did that helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon.
1. “There Is No Secret. Keep Going.”
Oiselle, my favorite women’s athletic line, has this saying. It may sound cliché, but the truth is, there is no secret. There’s no one formula you should follow that will lead to the result you’re looking for. Everyone is different. To think one size fits all is a misnomer. Our body types, genetics, past medical history, current life situations (family, dependents), occupation (ER nurse, traveling salesman), and environments are all different. What works for me, might not work for you. My advice is simple and the most important I have to offer; just keep going. Don’t give up. It might take months or even years. Keep going.
be•lieve. verb -- Accept (something) as true; feel sure of the truth of.
Believing in yourself plays a major role in your success as a runner. Your mind is powerful and has strong influence over you. When I started believing I could qualify for Boston, I started seeing improvement in my performance. I stopped feeding the lie I wasn’t a fast runner and I’d never get better. Decide in your next race you will PR and believe you can do it. It helps to have little reminders telling yourself to believe. From The Giving Keys, I have a keychain simply saying “Believe.” The key served as a constant reminder to me and after achieving my goal, I passed it along to a friend who shared a similar goal. Read about The Giving Keys here.
For me, prayer helps and I say a prayer before each race. Here is one I found at a race expo, called The Runner's Prayer. I love the message.
Nutrition plays a HUGE role in your marathon success. It took me a long time to realize this. Along with hydration, a few gels and a few gummy bears and I’d be fine, right? I never went without fuel; I just wasn’t fueling at the right time. Occasionally hitting the wall, I felt that was inevitable. All runners hit the wall, don’t they? Not really if you’re properly fueled. Having run 21 marathons and three 50 milers, in my opinion ultramarathons are easy. You just eat a little when you hit an aid station. Fueling during an ultramarathon has never been a struggle. But when you race a road marathon, it’s different. When and how often you fuel is crucial.
Not until I spoke with a nutritionist did I realize I had been doing it all wrong. She asked me what I ate two weeks before a race, three days before, the morning of, and 15 minutes before the marathons. My timing of when I fueled (like took a gel or chew) was off. I wasn’t eating anything bad; I just didn’t time it right. She explained in order for you to benefit from the carbs you're ingesting, timing is everything. The gel you took at mile 23 during a marathon will help you on your car ride home, not mile 24! My suggestion is, if you’re struggling, consider meeting with a nutritionist and ask what you can improve. You never know the difference it can make. Practice fueling the right way during training runs or trial it during a half marathon (or a goal race). It’s important to nail down the timing, how you will respond and gain confidence in knowing how things worked.
Hammer Nutrition products are my choice for marathons and ultramarathons. To aid with recovery, I use their post-workout product Recoverite. On a daily basis I take Tissue Rejuvenator because I like turmeric for inflammation, plus it also has glucosamine sulfate for joint health. During a marathon, I use Hammer Gels. Nocciola and PB chocolate are my favorite, using one 15 minutes prior to the start and a few during the race. Consult with a nutritionist or research as to if and when you should take more. Everyone is different. Your weight determines when you will need carbs again. In a hand-held water bottle, I pre-mix with water Hammer’s Heed or Fizz (a sports drink) and sip throughout the race. You may want to try Anti-Fatigue caps. They contain beet juice powder, potassium and magnesium. This product helps prevent muscle cramping and counteracts fatigue. Recently I discovered a pre-workout “ignitor” called Fully Charged. It helps to increase your energy, so usually I don’t have to fuel on my training runs, and it helps improve your power output, finding I’m running faster and more efficiently. Having a sensitive stomach, this brand works best for me. Having tried others, Hammer finally did the trick. I never hit the wall when I qualified for Boston. Interested in trying Hammer Nutrition? Visit their website, and for 15% off your order, 258418.
4. Dress the Part
Part of believing you can do it, is dressing the part. What do I mean by that? There’s a story of a college football player who wanted to be drafted by the NFL so he decided to "dress the part." Before games, he would dress in a suit and tie and walk to the locker room. This is something professional NFL players do, before changing into their uniforms. Classmates looked at him strange, since his campus was small, and didn't have far to walk. But he wanted to "dress the part" to show his confidence and aspirations. He eventually was drafted by the NFL and played for the Washington Redskins.
When I ran the Steamtown Marathon, my goal was a BQ. While I didn’t think I could wear a Boston Marathon shirt, I wanted to do something to show I believed in myself so the colors of the Boston Marathon, blue and yellow, became the theme. Along with members of my family, I got a manicure and pedicure with Boston Marathon blue. My nieces and sister painted their toes blue and yellow because they believed in me. Remembering their tiny little toes, and that simple yet meaningful gesture, got me through some tough times during the race. It’s the little things that mean so much and inspire us to keep going.
My favorite race day must-haves and staples are a meaningful object/good luck charm (like the Giving Key). I also carry on me a small race patch my father earned when he was a runner in the 80s. CEP compression socks (I’m prone to calf cramps and their socks work well for me) or sleeves and a SPI belt to carry my fuel and/or electrolytes.
For years, running was my only form of exercise. Knowing it’s preferable you cross train, I never did because I couldn’t find anything else I liked. With my continued struggle to get faster, I asked a friend what to do and she suggested I try yoga. Not wanting to waste money and knowing it would force me to go if I pre-purchased a yoga package, that’s what I did. Yoga helped me build muscles I didn’t work while running, becoming stronger and less injury prone. Yoga also did wonders for my breathing. It taught me to control my breathing during my marathons which served to keep me calm and well oxygenated. If you don’t currently cross train, consider adding in yoga into your routine. If anything, it will help you stretch and runners can definitely benefit from that!
Adding high intensity interval training (HIIT) class twice a week has helped me strength train as well and stay injury free. Using resistance bands at home is another activity I do as well. Here are some practical exercises you can do using a resistance band to build strength.
6. Hire a Coach or Find a Plan That Works for You
Some runners swear by one training plan while others swear by another. You have to find one that works for your schedule, your limitations and your body. If one plan hasn’t worked for you, try another. The internet contains a wealth of knowledge. You can find pretty much every type of marathon training plan out there from Run Less, Run Faster to the Hanson's Marathon Method.
After trying several plans, I finally hired a coach. I had someone develop a plan that was unique for me, and worked around my schedule. You need to have a good relationship with your coach. You need to be comfortable him or her and also be honest. Your coach, or the person making your plan, needs to know you, and your previous failures and successes. If a plan hasn’t worked for three marathons, maybe you need to try something different. You also need a plan that is practical for you. If you work 12-hour shifts and are following a plan that has you run seven days a week, and you’re struggling to get your runs in, maybe consider something that fits your schedule better. Online coaching by elite runners has become super popular. Ask around to see who your friends have used.
7. Use a Running Journal or Logbook
Keeping a journal or logbook is something I highly recommend. I LOVE the Believe journal by elite professional runners Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-Dumas. This journal provides a logbook, along with daily messages of inspiration and practical tips. There are sections where you work through certain things like self-doubt, and it really helped me. I have used both the Believe and Compete journals. Wanting to get back to basics, I’m starting 2019 with the Believe one again. It’s encouraging to look back at your accomplishments and why journaling is both important and powerful.
8. Surround Yourself with Positive People Who Have Similar Goals
Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself … Do you find the people you run with are always negative or super competitive? Do they bring you down or encourage you? Do they want you to succeed? Do they share your same goals? Do you find you take your long runs seriously, but they’re always trying to get you to run less? If you find the people you run with are a negative influence or bring negative energy, consider running with someone else or a new group. Consider running with a faster group as well. Running with faster or more experienced runners will help you. It is intimidating at first, but you most likely will get a little faster. Not wanting to be competitive, nor having time to be, I found a good group of running friends who want me to succeed. They have similar goals and are very positive. If you feel as though you’re surrounded by negative running buddies, constantly thinking you’re not good or fast enough, it’s time to find a new group.
Having someone pace me during a marathon was helpful. Whether it’s a faster friend or a pace group, having someone else do the work for you is worth it. You won’t have to think about your splits or keep looking at your watch. You just focus on your running.
TIP: Here’s an awesome product that will make a personalized pace band for you. If you want to know the splits you have to hit while running (for a specific finish time), this company will take the course elevation into consideration and personalize a band for you! You can adjust how you want it to work out. Do you want negative or even splits? They customize everything for you, including your wrist size and color preference. Ideally, you will follow a pacer and not worry about your splits, but if you don't have this option, check this product out! Additionally, this website will compare your previous marathon times and predict your finish time on your desired marathon.
9. Pick a Race and Course That Works for You
Timing is everything. If you don’t like training in cold weather, don’t pick a spring marathon. Same with the summer, if you dislike running in the heat and humidity, don’t chose a summer marathon. If you live where it snows all winter, and you're not sure if your training will go ideally for a spring marathon, don't pick a spring marathon. Figure out what time of year works best for you to race. Set yourself up to succeed. I love running in the heat. Therefore, an early fall marathon worked better for me. I could train in the summer just fine, and the fall wasn't too cold for my marathon.
Also make sure you pick a course that fits your style/preference. The Steamtown Marathon was in October, and is mainly a downhill marathon. I’ve heard lots of people say they hate downhill running because it destroys your legs. Thankfully, I did fine with it.
Found on Active.com, here are the top Boston Marathon qualifying courses according to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA). The Berlin, Tokyo and Chicago Marathons are also very flat. Some people like flat courses. Pick the type of course you've had success with in the past.
Bear in mind, the bigger the race, the more crowds you’ll have to fight past. Personally, I could not qualify for Boston running the Chicago Marathon. A crowded course can be challenging as you zig-zag around to pass other runners. Some people shine in the big city marathons but I needed a smaller race like Steamtown. There was enough crowd support to be distracted, yet I didn't have to run around groups of people. So consider the size of the participants when choosing a race. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the big city races like Tokyo or London, however, they didn't work well for me to run a BQ time.
Read race reviews. The Marathon Guide is a good resource for race reviews. Talk to friends who’ve run a race you’re interested in, ask for opinions in Facebook running groups. Ask your coach or someone who has trained you what they think. I had the option of running the Chicago Marathon (since I got in via the lottery) 2 years ago. I decided to defer and do Steamtown instead (which was on the exact same day) because I knew that my chances of BQing would be higher at Steamtown compared to Chicago. Thankfully I made the right decision.
Listen to what your coach has to say. Ask your coach what they think about the races you have in mind. They might provide insight or perspective you’d not thought about. I had picked a goal race before I BQd, the Philadelphia Marathon prior to hiring my coach. When I told him what I was training for, he asked “why that race?” He didn’t say much since I had already chosen my goal race but when I failed miserably at that race, he later told me “I didn’t think that race was the right fit for you”. After that, I let him decide what race I would do next for my BQ attempt and he chose correctly. I PRd by 15 minutes my next race and BQd right after that.
10. Don’t Wear a Watch or Don’t Look at It
This tip is similar to what I mentioned earlier about following a pace group. Just run. Try not to focus too much, if at all, on your splits. You’ll waste energy and time. During the May 2016 Poconos Marathon, I dropped 15 minutes off my previous time. I stuck with a pace group and never looked at my watch. I turned off the alerts so I didn’t hear anything. I did the same for Steamtown when I qualified for Boston. Your watch can help, but it can also hurt you. Try not wearing a watch for your next race (try a 5k to start) and see how you do. I think you’ll surprise yourself. Try practicing while you train. My coach often gives me timed runs, not mileage goals, for a weekly run. He’ll just tell me “run for 60 minutes,” so I set a timer for 60 minutes and run, without looking at my watch.
Physical therapy and massages are very important, helps to prevent injuries and something I do every month. In Hal Higdon’s book, MARATHON, I remember reading that he gets one massage a month and recommends runners do as well during training. One or two massages a month will help you a lot. Realizing it can be costly, staying injury free will save you money in the long run. If you pay for a race early, become injured and have to cancel your plans, think of all the money you will lose. Massages can range between $60-100 and are beneficial to your overall health.
Products I also recommend with this process are a foam roller, the Stick and a Roll Recovery. Yes, they all do similar things, but I find each works differently on different parts. These should be used weekly, not just when you’re injured. I keep mine out on the living room floor to remind me daily to use it while watching TV. If I’m faithful using them, I run better and stay injury free. Incorporating the “legs up the wall” yoga pose into my daily routine has been helpful as well. For the benefits of “legs up the wall,” click here.
There you have it. If I leave you with one piece of advice, or my best tip, it’s this: There is no secret. Keep going. If you want something bad enough, fight for it. Believe in yourself. Employ help from other people, like a coach, pacer or faster friends. Surround yourself with positive people.
I hope this helps you. Please leave a comment if you have more suggestions, questions or comments. Feel free to tell me what worked for you! I always like hearing what others have to say about how they qualified. Follow me as I continue to train for marathons, find new adventures and make new memories.