Lessons in marathon training

Imagine running your first marathon in 2hr41?  Imagine doing it off less than three months of training? Most people would be pleased with that, but now imagine you were already a great endurance athlete used to training thirty hours every week. This is Gwen Jorgensen’s story.

Graduating to work as a tax accountant in 2009, Gwen Jorgensen was talked into becoming a triathlete by USA Triathlon. She’d been a runner and swimmer through college so only needed to add the cycling skills to enter her first triathlon a year later. She was good enough to finish with elite status.  Two years later, she competed for the USA at the London Olympics coming in 38th after getting a flat tyre in the cycling section. In the following years Gwen became one of the world’s premier female triathletes, being crowned the winner of the ITU’s World Series in 2014 and 2015.

This lined her up as the favourite for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like the World Series events, the Olympics are a 1.5km swim (taking around twenty minutes), a 40km cycle (1hr) and a 10K run (thirty-five minutes). This is about a quarter of the more famous Ironman triathlons.

In the six months prior to Rio, Jorgensen logged 137 swims, 110 rides and 171 runs. With running being her strength she’s often able to start the run, which is the last part of a triathlon, behind opponents and catch them. She was generally recognised as the fastest runner on the women’s circuit and in Rio ran 34:09 for 10K on her way to taking the gold.

On her way to gold in Rio

Having claimed the Olympic title, Gwen then threw out a curveball, she was going to run the New York Marathon three months later. More accurately she was going to do it in seventy-eight days’ time. She won the Rio gold on 20th August and the New York Marathon was being held on November 6th giving her just twelve weeks and one day to train.

As we now know she ran 2:41:01 to finish 14th and by her own admission she wasn’t happy with that time. Running the NYC marathon was to be the first step towards her goal of winning the (now-cancelled) 2020 Tokyo women’s marathon. The fastest women in the world are running sub-2:20 and in New York she set out with the leaders at 5:40/mile, managing to stay with them for the first five miles before dropping back and finishing the last two miles at seven minute mile pace. The graph below highlights how her performance dropped away in the second half.

Her seventy-eight days of training were less than ideal. She still fitted in triathlon events which meant continuing to train for those and her running mileage came in at fifty miles per week. She’d never run further than ten miles before and with the limited time available, her longest training run was sixteen miles. Another aspect of her training that was less than ideal was she trained off-road which was unlike the tarmac surfaces she encountered in New York.

Gwen’s NYC splits in parkrun terms – a noticeable drop in the second half

So what are the lessons we can learn from this performance? To me, the notable (and somewhat obvious) thing is that even though Gwen never ran longer than sixteen miles in training for her first marathon; her pace was high from the beginning and she was able to get to the end still running. She didn’t end up walking because she has a huge base of fitness from her triathlon training.

On the other hand, her triathlon training wasn’t specific enough to allow her to continue her starting pace and see it all the way through. If you want to get the most out of training then running is going to be better for your marathon than cross-training.

Training off-road didn’t work for Gwen as the tarmac in New York was tough on her legs – she wasn’t accustomed to it. Often elite runners and physios recommend running on softer surfaces to avoid inflicting damage. But I believe this is advice better suited to those running higher mileage. Gwen went from running 30-40 miles per week to 40-50 – it’s not a huge increase.

Also with specificity I’ve known people training for London who do their long Sunday runs over the hilly Purbecks. While it’s nice to get out in the peace and quiet, hills are one thing London doesn’t feature – it’s a flat course other than a slight downhill in the opening miles. Hill training has its place in a training plan as a workout but combining that with a long run is adding unnecessary stress especially for slower runners.

While Gwen is not the first runner I’ve seen who records decent times in half or full marathons off less than perfect training. I’ve seen guys run sub 1hr30 half marathons with barely any long distance training because they’ve got the speed over shorter distances. I’ve done it myself – I ran a 3hr41 marathon with only six weeks where I ran more than thirty miles but I was already running twenty-one minutes for 5K.

This is really key. First you have to be able to run fast, or more specifically you have to have a high lactate threshold which is the result of combining speed and endurance. After that it’s about how much pain you’re willing to suffer as your body fatigues and slows down. Trying to run a marathon on fifty miles per week, in less than three months, with nothing longer than a sixteen mile run wasn’t enough to stop Gwen’s pace dropping in the final miles. I experienced the same on my marathon, I went from running 8:15/mile to 9min/mile in the last six miles.

If you’ve read my post on the 20-mile myth you may wonder, doesn’t this conflict with the Hansons’ idea of not running longer than sixteen miles in training? Superficially it does, but the plans in their book are not aimed at elite runners like Gwen. Their elite plans do more weekly mileage, over a longer training period and go out to twenty miles. The underlying principle of their system is to avoid overdoing long runs if you can’t complete them in two-and-a-half to three hours maximum. I believe that’s good advice.

Chicago 2018 marathon – the wet and windy city

A key driver for Gwen’s change from triathlon to running marathons was a desire to start a family. Typical triathlon training is thirty hours per week with three session per day. Some days that includes a three hour bike ride which, when you add in early morning runs, mid-morning swims, eating and changing is likely too much, although not impossible, to also do justice to raising a baby. Any parent will tell you it’s hard enough as it is. By comparison an elite marathon runner typically trains for thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning straight out of bed and then another longer session in the evening. With a supportive husband, it’s much more manageable.

However things haven’t worked out in the marathon world for Gwen. Her best marathon is 2:36 in Chicago in 2018, which puts her well down the list of American women running the marathon. It’s a time that wasn’t going to be anywhere near the gold medal in Tokyo, so in late 2019 she decided to switch to focusing on the 5,000 or 10,000 metres. Her times are still struggling to be world-class but it’s clear that while she was great at Olympic-distance triathlon she hasn’t turned out be the endurance monster many expected.

Come this autumn we’ll see how all that training has worked out for her with the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Will she even be there? In my opinion, whichever way you look at it she’s had an enjoyably challenging decade. She began it working sixty-plus hour weeks as an accountant which by all accounts (pun intended) she enjoyed. She then became less cerebral, pushing herself physically and competing in two Olympics, winning gold in one. As a triathlete she travelled around the world for the World Series events and at one stage seemed unbeatable with thirteen consecutive wins, then as the joy of parenthood beckoned she took on a new challenge and all that entails. Whatever happens I’d sum that up as living life to the max.

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