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It's possible to get to Boston from where you are now, Dianne...with a lot of work and a good plan. You have a lot of time to cut from your marathons, but it is possible.


To answer one of your questions, a runner can improve for up to 10 years, regardless of the age at which s/he starts...(For an in depth study of the why's and wherefore's of this, see http://www.krs.hia.no/-stephens/index.html which is an excellent website for Masters...) Now, all this assumes that a runner trains consistently. If s/he is inconsistent (start/stop or with no plan)so s/he is always restarting, the total period of improvement might be extended, but the eventual level reached might be lower.


 I think that progress is best achieved through a long term program that includes a balance of speedwork, endurance, strength, and rest...that is, long runs and high mileage with speed training, hill training, weight training and scheduled rest periods. And it should be based on a plan...and the longer term the plan, the better.


I think you should set out on a multi year plan. I suggest the type of plan I like to follow...alternate marathon and 10k seasons. I prefer spring 10k and fall marathon programs, but the reverse works just as well. You can even fit three programs into a year with shorter "racing"

 phases following the training cycles.


The point is that, although both 10k and marathon programs include long runs and speedwork, they are very different. The marathon program emphasizes mileage and AT speed training, while not ignoring speed and running economy. The 1ok program focuses more on faster speedwork (VO2max and running economy training)since 10k's are run somewhat below AT, with somewhat less mileage. They complement each other. The benefits of each feeds the other, which enables you to "stair-step" your way to higher levels.


This is simply taking the "hard-easy" concept of training to a "macro level"...what's "hard" in a 10k program is "easy" in a marathon program, and vice versa. So, both body and mind get an extended break from each form of stress while still being challenged by the other. I think this is preferable to year round marathon training.


Concerning "rest." To make progress, you have to challenge yourself to move to a higher level, then rest so your body can consolidate at the higher level. Rest is an important part of any training program, and it should be planned. The best way to schedule rest is the hard/easy approach...that doesn't mean just day-to-day or week-to-week. It also means season-by-season. Alternating 10k and marathon seasons is the best way to build rest into a macro-plan. But, I like to go even beyond that. I suggest planning extended rest periods between the seasons. Specifically, 2-4 weeks of R&R between each 10k and marathon season. These breaks don't mean no running, but they do mean a big cut in mileage, no hard runs or racing, no long runs, etc. These are the times you recharge your batteries for the next 4-6 month "mini-cycle" within the macro cycle. This is even the time to treat yourself to a big banana split, holiday dinner, or New Year's Eve party...great for mental recovery. :)


One simple way to go about your quest is to get a copy of Bob Glover's book, "The Competitive Runner's Handbook" which is written for runners of all levels who want to improve. Especially study the 10k and marathon chapters. Choose the level of training schedule that best defines where you are now. Then start a long term plan to run each of the 2 programs every year, starting at your current level and increasing the level each year based on the progress you make. You just might find yourself qualifying for Boston in 2-3 years.


Sorry about rambling on.  I guess my basic messages are:


 1) You have a chance to get where you want to go.


 2) It will take what I used to talk about on these forums a lot...the 3 P's of running: Patience, Perseverance, and a Plan.


 3) It will also take a lot of hard work and a little luck in avoiding injuries.


 If you were looking for someone to tell you that you could qualify for Boston with your next marathon, I'm afraid I can't do that. 4:34 to 3:50 is a big jump. It isn't impossible to do that but it is highly unlikely, unless you were really sandbagging on your previous marathons. I do think that 2-4 years is a more reasonable target.