Practice makes perfect. I have found that when training for a marathon it's not enough that you simply practice running. You have to practice running in a way that simulates the conditions you are going to face on race day. In addition, it is wise to practice the type of pace you plan to run when that day arrives. With this as my goal, I set out on Sunday, February 23rd, to Williamsburg, Virginia, to participate in the Colonial Half Marathon. This race was to serve as my official prep race for Boston.
There are reasons why the Colonial Half Marathon makes an appropriate practice run. The terrain is surprisingly conducive to training for the ups and downs of Boston. While one may not think of Colonial Williamsburg as a particularly hilly town, yet of all the half marathons I have run, the Colonial Half is by far the hilliest. The hills are interspersed throughout the entirety of the course. Additionally, the course runs out and back along the same route so if you burn too much energy attacking the hills on the first half you will pay for it running up and down those same hills in the second half. Anyone who expelled too much energy prior to the Newton Hills which begin at mile 16 of Boston can attest to the importance of this.
It is also important to condition yourself to racing later in the day. The start of most marathons is early in the morning, usually between 7 and 8 a.m. But Boston, with its historic ties to Patriot's Day, has a late start of 10:30 a.m. For many years the race didn't start until 1 pm! The obvious down side to this late start is you end up running during the times of the day when any potential heat will be at its absolute worst. In terms of pre-race planning it forces you to pay much closer attention to your nutrition and hydration. With a 1:10 pm start, the Colonial Half Marathon gives you a trial run under all of these conditions prior to your goal race.
The final benefit of a well-timed practice run is the opportunity to reach what you anticipate being your goal pace per mile over a prolonged distance prior to the race itself. If you have a specific time in mind for your race you can very easily determine what will be required in terms of an average pace per mile during the race. When participating in your practice race simply use the opportunity to practice that same goal pace. If you feel great at the end you will know your training has gone well up to that point, but, if not, you may have to adjust your expectations accordingly.
To properly execute the plan for your projected time on race day there must be specificity linking your training and the potential race conditions. If you have had at least one chance to simulate the conditions and your strategy on race prior to the day, I promise you a couple things: you will stand a greater chance of achieving your goals, AND you will greatly improve your confidence on race day.
More in RVA Strong's Marathon Training Series:
Running in the Dark