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A Perfect Marathon

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6/15/03

A "perfect" marathon is generally considered to be one that is "even paced", with allowances for course terrain and weather variations throughout the race, and leaves you with an empty tank at the finish. Running a perfect marathon requires that three things be done correctly:

1. An honest and accurate pre-race assessment of your level of conditioning and preparation.

2. Establishment of a realistic goal and race plan, including consideration of race terrain and weather, that reflect the assessment of (1) above.

3. Disciplined execution of the race plan, especially running the first half neither too fast nor too slow.

Of course, it is extremely difficult to produce a perfect marathon. Many marathoners come close at times, but most will never actually run one. For instance, the closest I have ever come to a perfect marathon was half marathon negative splits of 1:18 at the 1997 Philly, although that did include 30 seconds to cross the start line.....Philly didn't start using the chip until 1998. However, one of our forumites recently came tantalizingly close to perfection. Hungry Crouton (Neal) essentially did run a "perfect" marathon at VCM three weeks ago. As Neal said in his race report, his finishing time was 3:22:05 for an average pace of 7:42.4. And his half marathon splits were 1:41:04 (average pace of 7:42.5) and 1:41:01 (average pace of 7:42.3). Absolutely amazing!

Let's take a closer look at Neal's race and see if it still stands up to the criteria of a "perfect" race. Firstly, let's discount the first mile, which was a typically slower startup/warmup mile, and the last 1.2 miles, which is when one pushes hard to the finish with all s/he has left. Then, let's look at the other 24 miles. Individually, they varied from 7:25 to 7:52....a range of +10 seconds to -17 seconds from the 7:42 average pace....an exceptionally close spread. Even his last 1.22 miles averaged 7:27....only 15 sec/mile faster than his overall average race pace. That indicates that he had just enough left in his tank for a late race push, but didn't leave any of his race out on the course.

Now, let's break down the 24 miles between the first mile and the last 1.22 miles into 6-mile segments and see how they compare. Neal's average pace for these were:

Miles 2-7 - 7:37

Miles 8-13 - 7:39

Miles 14-19 - 7:42

Miles 20-25 - 7:45

Thus, the average pace of each 6-mile was within 3 seconds of the preceding one and each segment varied from his overall average race pace by only 2-5 seconds. Incredible!

Neal obviously did slow just a tiny bit as he progressed through the race. At first glance it could appear that might be due to starting just a tad aggressively. However, I don't think that was the case. The "even pace" of a "perfect" marathon is more properly defined as "even effort". Variables that affect pace during the race have to be considered. These can include course terrain, wind speed/direction, and temperature. I don't know the VCM details for course terrain and wind. However, a rise in temperature during the hours spent running a marathon is common, especially with an early morning start and a mid-to-late morning finish. (This is a factor that many marathoners fail to consider in setting race goals and developing a race plan.) Such a temperature rise is what I strongly suspect led to Neal's very slight increase in pace.....which would indicate that his race was even more "perfect" than his splits indicate! The linearity of his "slowing" would also support that premise. Overly aggressive race planning or execution usually results in more dramatic slowing in the late miles, rather than a slight slowing spread uniformly throughout the race.

Marathon performances that come as close as Neal's to being perfect do occur occasionally....such as ChrisH's performance at Wineglass last fall where his half marathon splits were 1:35:06 and 1:35:04. However, they are few and far between. There are faster and slower marathoners than Neal. But few will ever run a marathon as "nearly perfect" as his was.

Jim2