Achieving your marathon goal requires numerous factors to come together on race day. Much more than in shorter races, the decisions you make during the marathon often have a large impact on your result. That is one of the reasons that the marathon is not just another race.
Two key decisions during the race are:
1) whether to run alone at your own pace or speed up/slow down to stay with a pack; and
2) on an off-day whether to persevere or drop out. Let’s take a look at these two important race-day decisions.
Should you change your pace to run in a pack?
Running in a pack is considerably easier mentally than running by yourself. There is also a small physical benefit to pack running, which becomes much more significant if you are running into a headwind. The advantage of running in a pack is due to reduced air resistance, and has been estimated at two to three percent. If you stayed in the pack the entire way, you would theoretically run three to five minutes faster in the marathon. The benefit of pack running increases the faster you run, so there is more benefit for the leaders than for slower runners.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that other runners are going to form a nice group around you that you can sit in for 26.2 miles is not very high. Chances are that there will be a portion of the race when you are running by yourself, either trying to get into a group ahead or gradually being caught by the group behind you. If you find yourself in the latter situation, prepare to latch on to that pack so they do not pass you by. This is particularly important when you are having a bad day. You can often turn a terrible race around by grabbing onto a pack and hanging on for grim death. The psychological factor of tucking into a pack is huge when you are having a lousy race and are feeling “down.”
What if you find yourself in a pack that is going faster than you can maintain? Well, if the pack is fairly large, then chances are you are not alone in this dilemma. By hanging out near the back of the pack, you may find that the pack naturally splits into two groups, and that the second group slows slightly to a pace you can maintain. A bit of conversation can sometimes facilitate this process. A quick “how you doing?” to the runner next to you may reveal a kindred spirit who is all too happy to slow slightly and run with you rather than get spit out of the back of the pack alone.
Of course, you may also find yourself in a situation in which staying with a pack is holding you back. You then have the tough decision whether to pull away from the pack on your own. Taking off on your own puts you in a vulnerable situation in which the pack is rolling along behind you waiting to gobble you back up. The thing is, you have to take that risk. You have trained too hard to sit in a big pack and allow a lack of nerve to jeopardize your result. The only time to sit in a pack when it is going too slow is in a headwind. Still, almost all races have a few turns and eventually you will be out of the headwind and it will be “safe” to take off after the next group of runners up ahead.
When is it okay to drop out?
If you are having a disaster of a marathon, you only have two options. You can either continue trudging along or drop out. Finishing the marathon is the better option unless: 1) you will injure yourself by continuing; or 2) delaying your recovery by finishing will interfere with achieving your marathon goals.
How do you know if you will injure yourself by continuing? You do not really know, but can make an educated guess. If you are limping, have muscle cramps, or if running is genuinely painful and the pain is increasing, then you should definitely stop. Similarly, if you are light-headed and unable to concentrate or have signs of heat exhaustion you should call it a day. On the other hand, if you just have tight, moderately sore muscles, or are feeling like crap, then you had might as well finish what you started.
If you are trying to reach a time-based qualifying standard and have slowed to the point at which you cannot make that time, then it may be wise to drop out and give yourself a chance to qualify in another race. For example, if you are trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and are bombing out in a September qualifier, then dropping out may be a good decision, because you can recover quickly for another attempt in October or November.
Some runners try to fool themselves that there is a third option by turning a bad marathon into a “training run.” The danger of deciding during the race that it is now just a training run is that once you make that decision once it is far too easy to do it again. There is a moment of truth (sometimes more like an hour of truth) in any marathon in which you do not know if you can keep going at the desired pace. Having the option of converting the race into a training run takes away the moment of truth and reduces the marathon to just another day.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.