Marathon Speed Chapter II  //  Why Paula runs 2:15, and South African men don't

07 Aug 2007 Posted by
So last Saturday, we did a post looking at how the track events, and in particular, the ‘golden era’ for track running of the mid-1990′s because the catalyst that has reshaped your typical marathon runner-profile. In that period between 1993 and 1998, the world record over 10000m was broken 9 times, bringing the best time down by 45 seconds! It was inevitable that when this generation (the likes of Tergat and Gebrselassie) stepped off the track and onto the roads, there’d be fireworks!

And sure enough, it’s not unusual to see four or five guys racing like track runners over the final kilometer of the marathon, at a pace of sub 2:08. And our point from our previous post was that the physiology of the elite marathon runner has evolved – no longer are they the steady “tortoises” with all the slow twitch muscle, they are as comfortable in a 5k race as a 21 km race as a marathon. The example of Paula Radcliffe is even more emphatic – here is a runner who, in years gone by, has been Commonwealth and European record holder over 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, and 10 000m! A competitor for many years over the track distances, until eventually, she stepped up and raced the fastest marathons ever seen. But we should have seen it coming…And our message was that there is a lesson to be learned from this for all of us mere mortals. And that is what this post is all about…

The example of South African marathon mediocrity…

Here’s a hypothetical example, which comes from South Africa, my (Ross’) home country. Perhaps you have examples of this wherever it is you are reading this, but it’s something close to home:

Sarah is a 16-year old girl, capable of running a 10km race in 34 minutes. That’s not bad, when you consider her age, and that she can win, or at least get top 3 in most local races. So what she realises very soon (with the right ‘guidance’ from greedy agents and coaches) is that there is a little bit more money running marathons, and she’ll be quite successful over that distance too.

So she races a few 21 km races to pass time until she’s 18, and her 21km performances are also not bad – with her 10 km best of 34 minutes, she can run 21km in about 74 to 76 minutes, good enough for the win and some more prize money.

So time passes and she steps up to the marathon – here, with her best 21 km time of 75 minutes, the best marathon she can possibly run is 2:40, and that’s pushing it. But that’s good enough, in the smaller races, to at least win some prize money, and there’s more money here than there was for running a 34 minute 10km race and winning it. So she sticks to the marathon, until her 22 year old legs are either injured or unable to sustain the pace of racing a marathon twice a month (seriously, it happens here in SA) and she ‘retires’ into anonymity, only to be replaced by the next talented 16 year old who can run 34 minutes for 10km.

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The logic behind speed for the marathon

Paula RadcliffeSo what does this have to do with Paula! And what does it have to do with you?

Well, you have to remember that there is a logical, natural progression in time as you move from 10 km to 21 km to the marathon. In otherwords, if your best 10km time is 34 min, you CANNOT run a 21 km race in 70 minutes – that’s a faster pace, for double the distance! And if your 21km time is 70 minutes, you WILL NOT run the marathon in under 2:20 – it’s just not possible! So you run 2:50, and your first response is to say that you “need more training”, so your training runs get longer and longer, which means slower and slower. And you start to think of 10km races as warmups, which means your 10km best time gets worse and worse, until eventually, your marathon is hitting three hours, and other 18 year olds are running past you!

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And for the men

Comparisons with Paula Radcliffe expose the problem

And what is worrying, and embarassing even, is that this is what is happening to South African men. Our best male runners are winning money by running 10 km in 30 to 31 minutes. They then run 21km races, finishing in about 65 to 67 minutes, and then jump to marathons at 21 years of age, finishing in about 2:18 to 2:20. Note that these are almost exactly the same times Paula Radcliffe is running! So the problem for these guys is not that their marathons are slower than Paula’s, it’s that their 10km times are too slow! They need to get their 10km time into the 28-min range, and then they can begin to compete in 2:10 marathons.

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Paula Radcliffe – the RIGHT way to engineer a marathon

So what Paula Radcliffe did with great success was to delay stepping up to the marathon for as long as possible, focusing instead on getting her speed developed. And she was successful on the track, make no mistake, but she was not the greatest. This must have taken enormous foresight and discipline.

You see, what Paula Radcliffe lacked was the ability to kick. So when you look at her major champs performances, she was a regular 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd place finisher. What that does not tell you is that she probably ran in the lead for about 9600m of a 10000m race, or 4700 m of a 5000m race, only to be dusted over the final lap. But she stuck with it…Her reward – a 30 minute PB over 10km, a 14:30 PB at 5000m, and a 1500m PB of 4:05! Most of these times were recorded between 2000 and 2002, part of the buildup to what would become the greatest period ever for a woman marathon runner.

So the take home message for all of us, and for administrators in South Africa (and no doubt other countries) is that marathon success starts with speed. In the men’s division, you simply cannot hope to compete in a race at sub 2:07 pace unless your 10km PB is 27 minutes, and preferably, you have the ability to run 5000m in under 13 minutes.

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So you’re not a potential record holder

What does this mean for you?

What does this mean for the rest of us, who have targets of 4 hours for the marathon? Well, the same logic applies. If your 10 km best is only 50 minutes, then your 21 km best will be no faster than about 1:50, which means your marathon best will be 3:50, at best. More likely, you’ll be running 4 hours. So if you want to get your performance over the marathon down, it’s not more endurance you need, it’s more speed.

At this stage, a disclaimer…there are of course people who can sustain more or less the same speed. I recall once meeting a girl who had a 10km best of 38 minutes, and a 21km best of 80 minutes! That’s the same time over twice the distance!!!! She said it was because her endurance was her biggest strength. My interpretation would be that her speed was inadequate, and if she spent a couple of months on it, her 10 km time could come down to 36 minutes, and then with some more training, her 21km best would drop to 78 minutes.

So practically applying this should tell you that one possible secret to success over the marathon is to be patient, work at speed, realise that the natural progression from 10 to 21 to 42 km means that a faster runner over the shorter distances means a faster performance over the 42 km distance. So your next question is “OK, I’m prepared to be patient, now how do I go about improving my speed over the shorter distances?” And for that answer, join us again over the coming weeks, where we’ll talk about training and speed work for everyone, whether you’re Paul, Paula, or just hopeful!

R & J