How I Finally Ran a Sub-Four Marathon

Last Saturday I did something that I’ve been dreaming of since I crossed the finish line of my first marathon over two years ago… I went sub-four in 26.2! I finished the Anthem Richmond Marathon in 3:58:29, leaving myself just over ninety seconds to spare under my goal. This was my third marathon, so I wasn’t new to the distance. But my first two finishes were 4:17:19 and 4:11:03 respectively, so when I set the goal for sub-four, I knew it was lofty. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to hit it. But I did, and I want to share how I accomplished taking over twelve minutes off of my personal best to hit a goal I’ve been dreaming of!

Training (running): When I finished my second marathon (also Richmond in 2017), I told myself that my goal was going to be to go under four hours in my next full race. It seemed impossible at the time, but I knew I would have a year to make it happen and set about making a training plan. I took it easy throughout the winter, running a few races here or there, but nothing major. I continued my normal short runs, as well as increased my yoga, weight lifting, and HIIT cardio. And once June hit, it was time to begin training for the full. I had recently finished completing my RRCA Run Coach certification and felt much better equipped to put together my own training plan, instead of finding a plan online to follow. I focused on long runs like normal, going from 8 miles up to a final 20 miler with drop down weeks throughout. But I also threw in tempo runs and interval training during the week to increase my speed in hopes that it would translate to a faster pace on race day.

Not only did I focus on a solid mixture of long runs, tempo pace, and intervals (along with normal “junk miles” thrown in), but I focused a lot on my pacing for each of those runs. Using the pacing chart from my certification, I worked hard to run my tempo runs at race pace (9:09/mile for a sub-four marathon), pushed myself to go under 8:40/mile in my intervals, and then forced myself to really slow down and run a solid 9:57/mile pace for my long runs. The toughest part was slowing down for the long runs. Physically, I felt completely fine to run those miles faster, but knew that there was a purpose to slowing down. And the biggest difference in this training cycle versus the last two? I didn’t stress about missing miles! If I missed a short or medium run, I didn’t kill myself trying to make it up. I simply continued on with my schedule. And honestly, I ran LESS with this training cycle than I ever have before, averaging about 25 miles per week and only going over 30 twice, with my longest week being 34 miles.

Cross Training: Another difference between this training cycle compared to the others was my cross training. When I first made my plan I committed to cross training with HIIT cardio, weight lifting at home, barre classes and yoga. And that was great… for the first three weeks. And then once the mileage started to creep up I knew that it wasn’t sustainable and I ended up dropping down to strictly running and yoga for the remainder of the four months leading up to race day. And I truly think this made all the difference. I wasn’t pushing my body more than I needed to. I was getting in some incredible strength training with my power yoga classes at The Hot Yoga Barre as well as great recovery and flexibility training during the slower Yin and Yugala flows. Instead of crushing my muscles each day with intense HIIT cardio and weight lifting, I focused on body weight strength through yoga and running. And although I wasn’t doing my normal weight lifting, my legs felt even STRONGER than in past marathons… thanks yoga!

Taper: Tapering always makes me crazy. Like insanely crazy. I stress that I’m not running and then realize that after so much running for four months, it actually feels good not to run, and THEN I get nervous that I won’t even want to run the race once it arrives. I think all of us feel this way when tapering for any race after training for a long time. But the taper is important and there’s science behind it. This training cycle, I took my taper to the extreme… I barely ran for the last THREE weeks leading up to race day! It wasn’t completely by design. I was in Mexico for a yoga retreat and running in the Mexican heat didn’t fit into my full days of yoga. And then my grandfather died and I was home in Lynchburg and grieving, and honestly just didn’t feel like it. And then the week before race day I did a five miler and a three miler… and that was it! Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly) I went into race day with incredibly fresh legs. Legs that had put in the work but were WELL rested and ready to go sub-four! I’m not saying you should completely stop running for three weeks leading up to a race, but it seemed to work for me this time around.

Nutrition: My nutrition mindset was one of fueling, not dieting. I’ve made a big shift recently to sustainable health, which doesn’t include counting containers and calories but rather focusing on fueling with real food from ALL the categories. With logging higher mileage than normal, I didn’t force myself to restrict carbs and in fact tried to eat more than usual. More food, more energy, greater ability to run longer, stronger and faster! In terms of race day nutrition, I trained using Honey Stinger gels (specifically the “Gold” flavor which tastes like straight honey and is AMAZING) because I knew they would be on the course. They provided me great energy and were super gentle on my stomach. Regardless of the course nutrition from now on, I’ll be running with Honey Stinger! This was also the first marathon where I didn’t wear my CamelBak water pack on my back. Instead, I carried a small handheld 10 ounce bottle and filled it every four-ish miles with water and Powerade from the course support stops. I was nervous to do something different, but found that running without the pack allowed me to feel lighter and less weighed down with so much “stuff” while running.

Race Day: I headed into race day with a plan to go sub-four. I was going to start with the four hour pacer, sticking close to them the entire time and maintaining a steady 9:09/mile pace with a surge forward at the very in to go slightly under the four hour mark. And then I crossed the start line… and that plan went to hell. I came out of the gate feeling SO good. I started at about an 8:45/mile pace, cruising past the four hour pacer. And then, I continued to feel great and so I decided to keep that pace until it “didn’t feel good” anymore. And y’all, that turned into my plan! It wasn’t calculated, in fact, it was the complete opposite of what I set out to do. But that pace felt strong and I decided that if I could hold it for a while and still continue to feel good, then it would give me a large enough buffer for once I started to break down later on in the race. Because I KNEW that I would. Unless you’re a freak of nature, you’re NOT going to cruise through the finish line of a marathon feeling great. I ended up keeping that pace for roughly fourteen miles and then started to slow, but forced myself to still maintain a 9:10-9:20/mile pace, knowing that the final few miles were going to be rough. And they were. Around mile 21, my left knee started to tweak (it always does in the marathon) and I slowed. And then at mile 23 I hit some SERIOUS quad cramps in both legs, and I slowed even further.

And then something happened around mile 24… I caught the four hour pacer in my peripheral vision. At that moment, I was running about 9:45/mile and had a decision to make, do I keep that pace and let my goal go, or do I dig in, push even harder, and step on the gas to go sub-four? The decision was easy, I knew I hadn’t worked this hard for over three and a half hours to let it all go to waste in the final two miles. And so I gritted my teeth and started to push harder. The quad cramps were insane. My left knee felt like it was going to tear at any second. But I KNEW that if I let my goal go after so much damn work, that I was going to be devastated. The last two miles were rough, but not as rough as I thought they would be. Once the four hour pacer started to get further and further behind me and the finish line grew closer and closer, I knew I was going to make it and the pain started to subside… the marathon is SUCH a mental battle!

I used my watch to pace me for the final two miles, using not the actual pace data, but the overall time. I knew that the pace may be a little off since my Garmin and the course weren’t synced up at 100%, but I also knew that I had started my watch at the exact second I crossed the start line and that I could count on the overall time to guide me in at under four hours. Coming down the final hill, I had roughly three minutes to go 0.2 miles… and I knew I was going to do something I’d been working for months to accomplish. I crossed the finish line at 3:58:29 and cried. It’s an incredible feeling to put your heart and soul into reaching a goal and then actually accomplish it. If you’re thinking about setting a goal for yourself in a race, I encourage you to do it, maybe even using a few of the things I learned to help! But make sure to set a goal that’s hard. One that will force you to WORK for it. And then, once you hit it… celebrate the hell out of everything it took to get there!