I hoped Jacksonville could be an amazing finale to an incredible year
I marked 2017 with some bold, personal athletic goals and achievements. My first full Ironman, winning a local Olympic distance tri, 5th overall at the Storm the Fort half in Tennessee, and joining the All3Sport Race Team. My second year of triathlon training was starting to bring me speed and strength I had never experienced before. This motivated me, and so I kept setting the next goal and ending up very happy with the result – adding to an already powerful athletic passion.
Subconsciously, this passion may also be linked to my age. I started this year with my 30th birthday. Something with that hit me that I’m no longer the young kid I think I am. There was a sudden realization that if I don’t do something now, it may never happen. Two kids and counting, a growing list of responsibilities and work and church. I’m still young of course, but it got me thinking.
What got me thinking the most was a silly thing, which gave me a bit of reality jolt. I lost a tooth this year. It wasn’t preventable – from some unknown trauma to the mouth when I was a kid, but now there’s a hole in my bottom teeth where once there was a tooth. It hit me that I’ll never have all my bones/teeth back perfect again. Who knows if (when) something bigger could happen down the road? So train hard and compete with everything you have now to build memories to last a lifetime.
To end my 30th year, I set an audacious, far-flung, but possibly achievable goal: Run a sub-3 hour marathon and qualify for the Boston Marathon. The qualifying time for me is 3:05, but to actually get in, you need to beat it by a substantial amount. Running a sub-3 would not only guarantee entry into Boston, but it would also prove that I have some running talent.
Just a year ago, I would have laughed at anyone suggesting I could do it. Yeah right. That was only for people that ran in high school or college. I mean, I did run a 1:32 half marathon on my half ironman race, but I’m fairly certain that course was short (my Garmin said 12.4 miles). So maybe it was possible, but at best, a 50-50 shot. Even if it didn’t work out, however, I knew I could get a marathon PR (previous was just under 3:35). No matter what, I could use some improvement on my running for the upcoming tri season – so what better than focus on running during the off-season and give Boston qualifying a chance.
An awesome training plan got me ready for my sub-3 attempt
The training plan I used was from Blue Ridge Runner: How to Run a 3 hour Marathon, a Just Enough Training Approach. I chose this plan for three reasons:
- It only consisted of three runs a week, so I could maintain bike and swimming fitness on the off days
- It was straightforward, easy to schedule, and had 100+ comments from people saying what had and hadn’t worked
- It was one of the top Google search results for “Sub 3 Marathon Training Plan”
I loved the plan. It has two criteria for using it: you have to be able to run a 5k under 19 minutes, and you have to have a strong base of running 3-4 hours per week for a year. I’d run an 18:30 5k the year before, and with Ironman training, I figured I was good to go.
The plan calls for three types of runs. Monday is a tempo (on pace run). Wednesday is half-mile intervals. Friday/Saturday is a long easy run with the last part at marathon pace. The pace to train at was 6:40, or 9 miles per hour. This would give me a time right around 2:55, which includes some cushion in case anything happens.
The workouts were challenging. They pushed me every time. Never did I finish a workout and say, “Psh, that was a piece of cake.” Nope – they were all very tough. I was able to hit the pace 95% of the time. The long runs with the marathon pace at the end were the hardest by far. Mostly, I would always have bathroom issues on the long runs (more to come on that).
Toward the end of my training, I realized a blunder that I will correct next time. I was too reliant on the pace feature of my GPS watch. Specifically, I was training to hit the 6:40 pace according to my Garmin. However, because I was running a curvy road most of the time in the neighborhood next to mine, it would often be over-generous with my pace. Sometimes my watch would cut corners, but more often, it would make the turns wider than what I was actually running. Therefore, even though it said I was running a 6:35 pace, I was probably running a 6:55 pace. To correct this in the future, I need to run paths with known mileage or a track for some of my workouts to verify my pace. This probably wasn’t that big of deal in reality – I think my watch was more accurate than I thought – but that worry nagged at me the weeks leading up to race day. ‘What if I’ve been training at 6:55 pace this whole time?’ Suddenly success seemed a stretch.
Right at my peak, I got sick. Not cool! Now I have to rest.
The training plan spends 10 weeks building up to peak mileage, and then 4 weeks tapering. Based on timing, I threw in an additional week to peak at week 11 before a 4 week taper. My peak was a half marathon PR (1:26) training run, which gave me some serious confidence that sub-3 was possible.
Then, I got the flu. And felt really sick. I’m not sure who got me sick, but I have an inclination that it was my kids. I went through a full range of emotions, anger, confusion, denial (lots of that until my wife, Audrey, snapped some sense into me that I actually was sick), and then acceptance. Eventually, I remembered that kids are definitely way worth it, even if they sometimes get you sick.
Despite feeling yuck, I wanted to run – to keep training. Luckily, smart people all around me told me to hold off and rest. Audrey gave me the perfect advice right away to treat recovery from sickness like part of the training plan. I reached out to other friends and resources, which all confirmed what Audrey said. Blue Ridge Runner even wrote an article about getting sick from my question.
So for 7 long days, I rested and rested and refrained from training. My fever stayed around for about four days. And my cough stayed with me for another couple weeks, but after 7 days, I felt much better. I slowly started back with some easy runs, and eventually started the taper section of my training program.
In my TrainingPeaks performance management chart, you can see my training fatigue drop and fitness slightly decline.
The timing of the sickness was extremely fortunate. I had done all the hard work to build the fitness, and now I was just maintaining it. I actually think it may have been a blessing in disguise. My IT bands were very tight after my half marathon training run. As I did my soul searching and praying, I received the impression that God sent the sickness to keep me from injuring my IT band – that the week off would allow it to recover. In that case, getting sick may have been the best thing to happen to me – nothing else would have made me divert from following my training plan to the ‘t’.
The last couple weeks of training, and then the worrying began. Could I really do it? Did I still have the fitness? Did I ever have enough of it? Would I fall apart soon after mile 13? Did I have enough in me to push on even when it really hurt? Am I the type of person that can run a sub-3?
With these doubt lingering in my head, we loaded up the van and headed off for Jacksonville.
Traveling to Jacksonville and the day before went smoothly
I picked the Jacksonville marathon for several reasons:
- It was a pancake-flat course – no hills to slow me down
- It was within driving distance
- It was on a Saturday; I don’t race on Sundays
- It was in December, which would give me plenty of time to recover before switching back over to triathlon training compared to a February or later race
Here’s the segment on Strava – very little elevation change and no big hills. Also not a net downhill course.
The trip down to Jacksonville was an adventure by itself. Audrey and I loaded up Rachel (4) and James (1), and headed South from our home in Atlanta. We made it halfway before stopping in Tifton, GA, and then made the balance of the drive the next morning. Staying at a hotel – and eating the free breakfast – is the main highlight for my daughter whenever we race. She loves the rooms, the nice big beds, and the sugary cereal she doesn’t have at home.
I was too much of a stress bucket to be much fun, but Audrey got me to smile and loosen up a bit. I was so nervous – which sounds silly to worry over something that doesn’t really have many consequences – but it meant a lot to me personally. My biggest fear of all was that I’d have a bathroom issue midway through the run, and that would just knock me out. I have a whole article I’m writing about bathroom issues and advice. More to come on that.
Packet pickup was straightforward. We went to the local running store that was sponsoring the race (1st Place Sports) and got my bib and pullover shirt. There wasn’t anything cool inside the drawstring bag they gave out – some races have vouchers for free stuff, but this one just had ads for sponsors. The pullover shirt looked awesome though.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites, which was the host hotel for the race. I had never stayed at the host hotel of race before, but it was a ton of fun. Everyone was there getting ready to race, and it was so fun to talk with other people from all over (even England) and hear about how they got there.
The pool was my daughter’s favorite part by far. The local park was my son’s. We spent a fun day together as I ate some white rice and chicken that Audrey had cooked and packed for me. That way, I could carb load with simple carbs while they went to whatever restaurant looked good (they chose Mexican). We got the kids in bed and finally fell asleep around 9PM. However, I was up every couple hours from being nervous. Audrey was having a rough night as well. We were both laying awake in bed when my alarm went off at 4:15 AM. Time to get up. Time to get ready. Time to run.
It’s race day – getting everything ready before the cannon shoots off
My watch alarm buzzed and I was up out of bed. I went through my race morning routine. Eat first thing to get digestion going. Quick shower to wake up. Electrical tape over my nipples to prevent problems. Body glide everywhere there might be friction. Race clothes on. Pre-race warm clothes on. Everything packed and ready to go.
While I was getting ready, Audrey was up and had the kids ready to go as well – quite a feat getting two kids in the car and keeping them happy at 5:30 in the morning. Even though the hotel had a shuttle to the race, we drove to a designated parking spot (at the DuPont Center) and took a shuttle from there to the race. We were the only ones with kids – and definitely the only ones with a double jogging stroller. I think we earned some respect from the other runners.
Once we got there, everything flowed very smoothly. They had an announcement playing over the loudspeaker on loop telling everyone where to go. Audrey found a place inside and camped out while I warmed up and made a final bathroom stop. I was feeling great. It was a tiny bit cold (about 48 degrees), but I knew it’d be perfect once I started.
At 6:45, I kissed Audrey and the kids and headed over to the race start. I was about 10 feet behind the starting line. They played the national anthem, and at 7 AM, they fired a cannon to start us off.
Off to a fast start over the first 13 miles
Right away, I knew I would feel good for the first bit. I had forgot what running race starts are like. I’m so used to running pretty much alone in triathlons after switching off my bike, that I hadn’t remembered the energy that comes with hundreds of other people running around you. I found my cadence very quickly, and logged some quick miles right away.
Part of me wanted to convince myself that I could indeed run a 6:40 pace. Combined with the excitement of “this was it!” I ran a 6:23 on my first mile. I slowed down a bit to clock a 6:47 mile 2, and then got pumped again as I could see the 5k finish line up ahead, putting on another fast one at 6:22. This gave me some breathing room if I didn’t nail 6:40 exactly, but also proved to myself that I had what it takes to hit 6:40.
The 5k mark was the starting line (we did a quick loop), and Audrey, Rachel, and James were all there cheering with all their might. It was good to see them. I threw them my beanie, gave Audrey a high five, and then settled down to get to work.
The weather was amazing at right around 50 degrees. I had worn thin gloves, crew socks that I had cut the bottom out of as sleeves, and a hat – all from the dollar store so I could toss them as needed. All of that was off by mile 4 – I was warmed up and chugging along.
Several people were pacing right with me, which felt good that I could rely on them a bit and not have to stare at my watch as often. Once I passed mile 5, the distance started to move by quickly. I was in a flow state. I melted into the world and zoned into my running and nothing else. It’s a cleansing feeling, especially early in the race when it’s not difficult.
Every couple of miles there was water and Gatorade. I grab something every station. The cups were only about 1/3 full, so I started grabbing two. Spilling on myself was cold, but it focused me in. Toward the end, I would grab a cup of water to throw on my face a couple times. The one thing I’d change about the race is make the aid stations a bit more predictable. Having an aid station every mile would be ideal, but even every 2 miles would be great as well. Instead, it felt like they were sometimes 1.5 miles, 1 mile, or 2 miles apart, kind of all over the place. A minor thing that didn’t matter, but it put a little stress into me as I tried to plan nutrition.
I brought four Clif vanilla gels with me in my pockets. I planned on eating two and having two as backup. An hour into the race (mile 9), I broke open the first one and ate about half of it. I had been grabbing a few Gatorades, and I snagged some water to get the gel down. I felt great on fuel, so I was going to err on the side of going light to avoid any GI stomach issues. I ate the other half about 15 minutes later. I did the same thing with gel number two at the two-hour (18 mile) mark.
The first half went flawlessly. I was a minute ahead of pace and clocked a 1:26:29 split. That was a 6:36 average pace. The half I had done in training had left me spent afterwards. This time, however, I felt I had many miles left in me. I kept pushing forward – it took a bit more concentration now. I had to focus on keeping my pace up, and I could tell that it was going to get harder in a few miles.
I probably could have paced a bit better, but I also wanted to see what I could do. Maybe I could hit 2:55 or less.
The second half was great until the last six miles
As I passed the halfway point, I was feeling great. I was excited to be on pace. Breaking three seemed possible now. I had time in the bank; all I had to do was keep going. 90 Minutes to go and then I could stop. This is what I had trained for – everything depended on this second half. It was time to show what I was made of.
There were still a few people near me – two or three in front and one or two behind. A few miles into the second half, I noticed a girl that was cruising along in front of me at about my pace. She then stopped on the side of the road and stretched out her legs for a few seconds. I called out some encouragement, and then was surprised a minute later as she pulled up right alongside me. We ran together for two or three miles, which was fun and motivating to have someone matching me step for step. She eventually fell back and ended a couple minutes behind me. I found out later on Strava that it was her first marathon – I’m very impressed.
Miles 15 through 20 were hard, but I was able to keep up my pace pretty well. We were heading back North again, toward the finish line, which was motivating. We were on the way home. I felt my heart rate start to rise a bit. I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor since it made me feel constricted a bit in long training runs. I could tell it was nearing the top of my aerobic zone.
Mile 20 and 21 were tough, but I pushed through. Then I started to fade a bit. My legs were on fire. Every step started to hurt. My pace started to slow as the pain forced me to take shorter steps. Down from my 6:40 splits, I hit 7:00, then 7:27, then 7:27 again. However, I also saw the clock – if I could stay above 8 minute miles, I would be ok. I pushed and pushed with everything I had.
You see my pace according to Strava over here on the right, which was a little different than my Garmin – but you can definitely see the story of the last 6 miles quite clearly.
What surprised me most was how many people started to pass me at this point. A good 5 or 6 guys who had paced very well blew past me in the last couple miles. I had some serious respect for them. I’d like to figure out how to nail a negative split at that speed. A sub-3 negative split, that might be my next goal (when I forget about how much this one hurt).
In the last mile, I was pacing with another guy, who had a friend on a bike coaching him on. The friend on the bike started encouraging me as well. He told me to drop my chin and lean forward a bit. It made a world of difference and sped me up a bit. Apparently, my form had suffered badly, so getting back into form helped tremendously. I’ll need to remember my form next time when all I can think about is my burning legs.
Half a mile to go, and I pushed and pushed. I thought I would make it, but still wasn’t positive. Then I passed the 3-hour pacer for the half marathon. I was there. As I came onto the track, Audrey and my daughter Rachel were cheering and yelling with all their heart and soul. Jumping up and down, Audrey told me to “go go go!” I pushed around the corner and ran with everything I had left. I could see the clock flip over to 2:58 with just a few feet left. I did it. 2:58:02. Sub-3 success.
Crossing the finish line – glad the pain was over and the glory secured
I stumbled to a stop, got my medal, and hobbled over to Audrey who tackled me and squeezed me as hard as she could. This accomplishment was just as much hers as it was mine because she supported me through training and coached me through illness, nutrition, tapering, and pre-race anxiety. Rachel immediately asked for, and got to wear, my medal. James was passed out in the stroller – too much excitement for him. They announced my name a couple times over the loudspeaker, “Alex Fuller from Milton Georgia, 2:58:02.” It felt magical to hear.
We rejoiced together. Then I laid down. Moving my legs at all hurt terribly. I just laid there and Audrey lightly rubbed my legs. I ate a couple bagels, some hot chocolate, and a bowl or two of chili. I actually had no desire to eat, but I knew I needed some fuel. I’ve definitely had better post-race food, but it got some calories in me. We played together and enjoyed the sun – cheering on others arriving from their marathon journey. Here’s a short video of me finishing with Audrey cheering – and another one right after where I’m just beat.
Reflections on the race – what I can do better next time (when I forget how much a marathon hurts)
Now that I have a few days behind me, I’ve had time to reflect on the overall experience. There’s some things that went very well and a couple things that I’d try to do differently.
Things that went well
- Training plan – I can’t recommend the Blue Ridge Runner plan highly enough. It worked perfectly
- Consistency – I stuck to the plan and was able to hold the required pace for 90% of the workouts I never missed a day except for the week I was sick
- Cross training – swimming, cycling, and running-focused strength training kept me injury free
- Nutrition – I didn’t bonk, and I didn’t have to stop and use the restroom – I had been praying very earnestly about this – I saw it as the biggest wildcard – and I am very grateful my prayers were answered
Things to do better next time
- Pacing – My first half was a 1:26:29, my second half was a 1:31:33. A negative split would have been ideal. I thought I might be able to hit 2:55. I’m not convinced that starting out slower would have saved me the last six miles, but I’d like to try that.
- Long runs – My poorest workouts were my long runs. I’d say 30-40% of them were messed up from needing to use the restroom multiple times (not planning smart foods the day before), or I just couldn’t run the last six at pace when it mattered
- Train on courses that make GPS a backup – Some percentage of my tempo runs were likely a bit too slow because my GPS was overcompensating – especially on turns. My go-to course had several turns, so training on a path with marked out miles (or just running a faster GPS pace) would help me
More than anything, I’m glad I set this goal. Two years ago, I ran my first marathon at 3:35 – which was a very good pace for me. I thought maybe I could knock 5 minutes off that pace someday. If someone said I would qualify for Boston two years later, there’s no way I’d believe them. But here I am, having dropped 37 minutes off of my PR. It has been such a blessing to improve so much.
So what’s next? I have a lineup of triathlons to run this year, including a couple half ironmans. I’ll need to train for Boston 2019 – see if I can qualify again there. Eventually, I need to build my bike fitness back up. But right now, it’s time to take a week or two off, eat more than I should, and recover.
If you have any questions about the Jacksonville marathon or training to break 3 hours, feel free to shoot me a note. I don’t know a lot, but I’ll share what I know.
This is mostly for me to remember for the future, but here’s a quick diary of what I ate before and during the race.
- Breakfast – oatmeal, waffles, simple carbs
- Lunch – white rice and chicken that Audrey prepared beforehand
- Snack – multigrain Cheerio’s with almond milk
- Dinner – white rice and chicken (same)
Race day morning
- Multigrain Cheerio’s with almond milk
- Glif Shot Vanilla Gel 30 minutes before start
- Orange Gatorade at about every other aid station
- One Clif Shot Vanilla Gel at one hour mark over 15 minutes
- Another Clif Shot Vanilla Gel at two hour mark over 15 minutes