I had pretty much given up on the prospect of getting a BQ. No matter how many miles were in my marathon training plan, no matter how healthy I ate, I plateaued. In January 2016, I joined the Dashing Whippets, hoping that a running team would help me progress. Across the board, training with Whippets brought substantial gains in every distance… Except the marathon.
I had made some fairly quick progress as a later-in-life runner. After finishing the 2014 NYC Marathon (my second marathon) in 3:22:19, that notion popped into my head: “3:05 is not impossible.” I did the obvious things: increase my weekly mileage, incorporate speed workouts, and eat a clean marathoners diet.
The results were uninspiring: achilles tendinitis, a metatarsal stress fracture, and, possibly, an eating disorder. I was trashing my body, bonking on my runs, not recovering, feeling worse than ever, and my marginal gains in the marathon weren’t worth it. Two years and six marathons later, I had shaved only 4 minutes off my marathon PR at the Wineglass Marathon in October 2016 with a 3:18:35.
Maybe the marathon just wasn’t my thing.
In January 2017, I gave up trying to BQ. Instead, I decided to focus on half marathons and triathlons. Some Whippets who were about to try for BQs in Tokyo encouraged me to sign up for a spring race, but I didn’t want to try; I knew what would happen: I would train hard, eat right, and then bonk hard and fall far. Furthermore, the only viable option for a spring race was the New Jersey Marathon, a race I desperately did not want to do.
I had done NJ twice before and had a bad experience both times. In 2015, I was sick, puked midway, and almost dropped out at mile 14, but foolishly pushed through. In 2016, the windy, rainy weather made me really cold, sapping my energy for the last 8 miles. My wife, Stephanie, forbid me to race it ever again. Apparently, I’m not pleasant to be around after completing the New Jersey Marathon.
But this past February, I had a breakthrough. I made one change and pulled off a long run for 18 miles at a 6:53 average pace, well on track for sub-3:05. It was my best run ever.
A few years ago, while researching the typical elite marathoner diet, I became fixated on weight. I am 5’9” and usually weigh around 155 lbs. Comparing my weight to elites’ and using various online calculators, I convinced myself I had to weigh 140 lbs to succeed. Dropping 15 pounds would require healthy eating, including a reduction in sugar intake. Simultaneously, Stephanie was having some issues with digesting sugar and had eliminated it from her diet. Without any sugar in the house, hitting 140 should be easy, right?
Being somewhat obsessive, I also applied this diet to training and racing. I switched from GU to Honey Stinger, because it had more “natural” honey sugar, and replaced Gatorade with a sugar-free electrolyte drink, even in races.
This prohibition on sugar began in 2015… Precisely when my marathon times began to plateau.
So, what changed in February? I ran with a fuel belt and drank Gatorade for the first time in a few years. I felt phenomenal. Drinking Gatorade during runs was so obvious; even beginner marathoners do this. I wanted to beat myself up for making a mistake that even rookies don’t make… I almost didn’t want to believe that the solution to my marathon woes was something so simple… And how could something “unhealthy” like Gatorade be helpful? I needed to test it.
I bought a diabetic glucose-testing kit to test my blood-sugar levels both during a normal day and before-and-after a run. Even on rest days, the readings indicated that I was slightly hypoglycemic, perhaps the result of a mostly sugar-free diet. If my blood sugar was low on rest days, I deduced that my blood sugar must be non-existent during the latter part of a marathon wherein I wasn’t ingesting much sugar.
My hypothesis: an obsessive, healthy, low-sugar diet lead me to consistently bonk in marathons, regardless of my weight. There was only one way to test this theory, however. By March, I convinced Stephanie to let me register for the New Jersey Marathon.
My training plan was simple: follow the Dashing Whippets’ NJ marathon training plan, add some marathon-pace miles into the long runs, and practice a marathon fueling plan that included training my body to take in copious amounts of sugar. On long runs, I practiced taking GU Roctane every 5 miles and drinking only Gatorade Endurance Formula. Before runs, I ate a bowl of oatmeal with several tablespoons of maple syrup in it. On many shorter easy runs, I forced myself to take GU after 5 miles, as practice. In addition, I began eating sugar in everyday life too, unafraid to eat the occasional cookie or cupcake. My long runs were promising.
On race morning, I weighed 156.2 lbs, the heaviest I’ve ever been for a race (and far more than 140 lbs). I ate my usual pre-long run meal of oatmeal with maple syrup, a banana, and coffee. My plan was to take a GU just before the start and at miles 5, 10, 15, 20, and 1-2 cups of Gatorade at every aid station.
For the first 10K, I felt strong. I kept telling myself to keep it in check, which isn’t difficult as NJ has no lack of 90-degree turns. I stayed with the 3-hour pace group even though they began to go a little fast. Slowly, I lost sight of Steve Wo (who was hammering to a sub-3 race).
At mile 5, I was due for my GU. Because of the pace group, I had trouble getting over to the aid station and could only grab 1 cup of Gatorade. I was only able to take half of my first GU; my fueling plan was not off to a good start. I fell back from the pace group to give myself some room and freedom to navigate the aid stations better. This also helped me find my own stride and rhythm.
By mile 10 and after another GU, I became optimistic. Everything still felt easy. And when I saw the Whippet Cheer Station at Mile 11, things felt really easy. It was an incredible boost to see Stephanie, Perry, Eileen, Martina, and Megan. Their energy made up for missing half of my first GU.
I took another GU at mile 15. Now, I was nervous; I knew I had a shot if I kept pace and stuck to my fueling plan. Stephanie was now riding her bike parallel to the run course and would pop over every now and again to cheer me on. Her cheering during these miles carried me forward, especially since there wasn’t much of a crowd otherwise.
At mile 20, the course runs on a bouncy, sometimes sandy boardwalk into a headwind with more 90-degree turns. I took my final GU and did the math. PRing was guaranteed. Sub-3:05? I would still need to do some work. Luckily, Stephanie was continuing to leapfrog me on her bike. She had done the math too and was shouting at me to keep going!
This was the first time that I had gotten this far in a marathon without becoming light-headed, dizzy, delirious, or have the strange desire to close my eyes while running.
At mile 25, I saw the Whippets Cheer Team again and was met with cheers and confetti! I was a mile or so from the finish and still on track for sub-3:05. I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:03:46. I had PR’d by almost 15-minutes from six months ago and got my BQ!
Reflecting back on my previous marathon training diet plan, I had become too focused on weight and neglected a balanced nutrition plan; I obsessed over eating only “healthy” food until it resulted weakness, fatigue, poor recovery, injury and stagnation. While being lighter and leaner does make you faster, I learned that a nutrition plan needs to be approached carefully or it may backfire and do more harm than good.
For the record, I’m not consistently eating unhealthy or having Magnolia cupcakes for breakfast. I’m just not going to extremes, especially when fueling for a marathon. Success didn’t necessarily require a drastic drop in weight; I needed a balanced diet and a practiced fueling strategy to compliment my workouts.