INTERVIEW: Dana Honeycutt on Running the NYC Marathon 2013 By Objective Motifs
On November 3rd, 2013, Dana Honeycutt ran the ING NYC Marathon. We asked Dana about his experiences achieving this super goal, and here he explains what it took to prepare for and run the marathon.
Objective Motifs: How do you train to run the marathon?
Dana Honeycutt: I have been running half marathons on a regular basis for years, so I have a level of baseline endurance I can count on. When a marathon is coming up, the main change to my training is to add the weekend long run. Beginning about 5 months before the race, I start ramping up the distance of this run. My first one might be just 8 miles. But by 4 weeks before the race, it is up to 20+ miles.
Elite marathoners run over 100 miles per week. Even recreational racers typically run on most days. But early on in my life as a runner (going back 25 years), I learned that my body could not handle such frequent runs. In particular, I would get injured if I ran on consecutive days for long periods of time. I just need more than 24 hours’ recovery between runs. As a result, I became a 3-day-a-week runner, and tried to make up for the lack of overall mileage with increased intensity or increased distance on the individual runs. On the off days, I swim a couple of times a week, so I’m not completely idle.
High mileage runners might scoff at the type of training I do, and indeed there is a general correlation between weekly mileage and race performance. But even with my lower mileage training, I was able to run a 2:58:59 marathon in my 30s and a 1:28:49 half marathon at 50 (which was the time that qualified me to race in NYC).
OM: What steps did you take to reach this goal? What other important races did you run in?
DH: For many years, I had been under the impression that the only way for a non-elite runner to enter the NYC Marathon was to be selected in a lottery. I never bothered applying because I didn’t like the idea of being subject to the whims of chance rather than being able to make concrete plans to do the race a certain year. But having done L.A. and Boston, NYC was the one other big race that I really wanted to do, so I thought that perhaps one day in the indefinite future, I would go ahead and apply.
Then in 2007 a friend pointed out that you could qualify for NYC in the same way that you could for Boston. Even better for me as a half marathon specialist, you could do it with a sufficiently fast half marathon time rather than having to run a full marathon as Boston requires. Soon after that, I made qualifying for NYC a goal, and I wanted to do it before turning 50. As a male in the 45-49 age group, I had to beat 1:30:00. (The times have since been made tougher — more on that later.) At that point, my typical times were close to 1:40, so I knew I needed to get faster, but the goal didn’t seem too far out of reach. I thought it would take a year or two. It ended up taking almost four.
The main change to my training was to increase the amount of interval and tempo work. Interval runs involve going substantially faster than race pace for a shorter distance — 400 to 800 meters, say — then resting for a few seconds to a couple of minutes and doing it again. Tempo runs are longer — 3 to 5 miles — and are done slightly faster than race pace.
The San Diego area has some great half marathons, but due to their hilliness, some are less promising than others if you want to break a certain time. I focused on the Silver Strand and Carlsbad races due to their relatively flat courses. But all of the half marathons I did over this time were important in assessing my progress from year-to-year.
Here is my progression of times for Carlsbad, the race at which I ultimately qualified:
So in 2011, at age 49, I finally did it. But that’s not the end of the story. I felt no urgency to actually run NYC the next year. The reason is that the qualifying time for 50-54 year olds was 1:40:00 — 10 minutes slower. Since I’d be 50 the next year, I figured I could easily qualify for years to come and then do the race when convenient. So I waited and did not register for NYC. (In retrospect, this was a good thing, since Hurricane Sandy caused the cancellation of the 2012 race.)
Then in the summer of 2011, the NYRR pulled the rug out from under me. They drastically tightened the qualifying times such that I would now need to beat 1:29:00 as a 50 year old — a minute faster than I had run at 49! It would still be possible for me to register for the 2012 race based on my 2011 time. But if I wanted to race any later, I would need to get still faster. Even though the lottery was still an option, by this point it had become a matter of personal pride that if I ever raced NYC, it would be because I earned my way in.
From the progression of times above, you can see I was knocking off about 3 minutes per year. So it looks like I could just keep it up. But once I went sub-1:30, I could tell I was close to the limit of progress. And, I think due to the increased training intensity, I was getting various annoying injuries that required me to back off and lose progress while I let them heal. Still, I was going to keep up the training and go for it at Carlsbad in January 2012.
Come race day, I was feeling pretty good. As I recall, weather conditions were ideal. As the race progressed, I was a little bit behind my target pace, but not too far. The Carlsbad course is relatively flat, but it does have a few rolling hills that sap your speed. The good thing is that the final mile is downhill, and when I came to that mile, I knew I needed to push, because I had a lot of time to make up (20+ seconds). So I did push, and it hurt like hell. But I kept telling myself, “You have to do this, or run NYC next year,” “Pain is temporary, victory is forever,” and, “For God’s sake, don’t miss the time by a second or two!”
I made it with 11 seconds to spare, finishing in 1:28:49, a 6:47 pace. Later I learned I had placed 2nd in my age group, so I got a little plaque to put on the mantel. But I decided that was it. I’m never going to run this fast again. NYC Marathon 2013, here I come.
(To add yet another wrinkle, due to all of the runners rolling over from the 2012 cancellation, the marathon organizers decided that even time qualifiers such as myself would have to go through our own lottery in order to do the race. Fortunately, I made it through.)
OM: What strategies do you consider to maintain your pace and endurance (things you do before and during the race)?
DH: For me, a half marathon is a race, while a full marathon is a survival contest. I can run a half at close to a 7:00 per mile pace but (at least in the past 10 years) find it seemingly impossible to get down to even an 8:00 pace in a full. Of course, you expect to go *somewhat* slower in a full. But in my case, the difference is dramatic.
For anyone, the battle in a marathon is to maintain a reasonable pace through the end while not running out of fuel. The two are correlated in that if you do run out, your pace will collapse at the end. To clarify: everyone has vast stores of fat in their bodies which would be sufficient to sustain them through multiple marathons — at slow, plodding speeds. But if you want to run at a decent pace, the relevant fuel is glucose from muscle glycogen, so I and pretty much every other marathoner eat large amounts of carbohydrates in the days before the race to try to top off our glycogen stores. During the race we take Gatorade at the water stations or eat high-carb gels along the way in order to spare these stores.
For pacing, the main challenge is to not go out too fast. If you have properly tapered (scaled back your training) before the race, then at the start, you will feel full of energy and ready to go. You need to force yourself to hold back for at least the first half of the race. So all the way through Brooklyn, I told myself, “Take it easy,” concentrated on running at a relaxed pace, checked my GPS watch to make sure I wasn’t speeding up, and intentionally stayed in the middle of the road, away from the crowds.
OM: What are you thinking while you run the race?
DH: I do a lot of self-monitoring. The following are paraphrases of thoughts that went through my mind along the course. Imagine an ongoing mental dialog throughout the race in which I repeated some variant of each, as well as various other thoughts, multiple times along the course.
“Enjoy yourself; look around; don’t worry too much about your time.”
“I’ll skip this station and get water at the next one.”
“My stomach is a little upset. I need to wait before taking gel.”
“I should have waited longer to do my last pee.” “Just relax. The urge will diminish.”
“Take it easy. Save your strength. Stay away from the crowds for now. Save the high fives for the end.”
“Pace looks OK. Keep it in the 8:05 to 8:10 range until halfway” [I had a GPS watch to monitor my pace.]
“There’s the Empire State Building [across the water]. We’re making progress.”
“When is this bridge going to stop going up and turn down?” [Queensboro Bridge.]
“Keep the cadence up.”
“Uh oh, I’m slowing. So much for a negative split.”
“This is starting to feel like work.”
“I had no idea this hill was so long and steep.” [along 5th Ave.]
“I really, really want to be done with this.”
“I need to do at least a few high fives before I finish.”
“I’m too tired to wave any more” [at people calling my name, which I had written on my shirt].
“Not another hill!”
“Done. Finally. Ouch, my legs hurt.”
OM: How do you feel when you start the race? finish the race? are in the middle of the race?
DH: You can infer some of this from the progression of my internal dialog above.
At the start: Happy to finally be moving. Enjoying Sinatra singing, “New York, New York.”
In the middle: Relaxed but focused. Monitoring effort, speed, hydration, how my stomach feels, whether there are any turns ahead, and so on.
Late in the race: Tired. Starting to feel the fatigue in my leg muscles.
Last two miles: Pain. Straining to push myself forward and minimize the time lost. (After my pre-race goal of sub-3:35 was shot, my late race goal became sub-3:40.)
Finish: Mental relief to be done, along with physical pain in my legs worse than when I was running, and a slight degree of stomach upset. After walking, sitting, drinking and eating a little, and walking some more, the extreme discomfort dissipated over the next 30 minutes.
OM: How aware are you of what is around you or happening around you during the race (people, scenery, etc)?
DH: Very aware of immediate surroundings such as the runners around me — I need to be or I’ll collide with them. I also look far ahead to be aware of the where the course goes next so I can try to take the most direct line around any corners or obstacles, so I can see where the next water station is, and so on.
For this race in particular, I was committed to enjoying it, so I made a conscious effort to look around more at the scenery and crowds than I would in a typical race. So generally the crowds and scenery were at the periphery of my awareness, but periodically I’d make a point of focusing on them.
OM: What was distinctive in the NYC marathon experience? What was it like starting with the Verrazano Bridge? Which bridge did you like best? least? Which marathon route did you like best?
DH: Distinctive in NYC was the setting, the sheer size of the race, its logistical complexity, and the geographically diverse participants. I spoke with people from Germany, Alaska, Sweden, New Jersey, and Poland, and probably other places. (I didn’t always ask.)
Starting at the base of the Verrazano Bridge was great. First, the view was incredible. Second, starting on a long uphill grade helps counteract the natural tendency to start at too fast a pace. So that was the bridge I liked the best.
The bridge I liked the least was Queensboro. It’s a long bridge with a 3/4 mile climb at the beginning, and it comes at mile 15, by which point I was getting tired. It was on that bridge that it started to become clear that not only would I not be able to increase my pace in the second half of the race, I wouldn’t even be able to maintain it.
I’m not sure what you mean by “Which marathon route do you like best?” If you mean “which marathon course,” it would probably by L.A. — though I haven’t raced that course in 20 years, and the current course is very different. I remember the course as quite flat, especially the last few miles — but it may have been that I was just much younger and did not notice the hills as much as in NYC.
OTOH, if the question is, “Which part of the NYC course did you like best?”, then the answer is undeniably Brooklyn. It was a long, flat stretch early in the race, so I was fresh and could enjoy myself.
OM: What was your time and how was that?
DH: My time was 3:39:37, which was a little slower than my target of 3:30 to 3:35. It was my second slowest marathon, the slowest being 3:42:37 at the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2005. Just doing this race was a very big deal for me, and I did it for the experience, not with an eye to setting a personal record. So I’m not that disappointed in the time — and happy that I was at least able to go sub-3:40.
OM: What’s next?
DH: I will be doing the Carlsbad Half Marathon in January, which I do every year. It’s a good, well-run race with a scenic course, and I feel great loyalty to it because I qualified for both Boston (with the full) and NYC (with the half) on that course.
After that, I need to decide on a new long-term goal. NYC was my focus for 5+ years, and I’d like to come up with an athletic goal that is comparably motivating. I’m done with marathons, though. They just beat me up too much, I’m not competitive at that distance, and with NYC behind me, there are no specific marathons left on my bucket list.
I already did triathlons from the late 80s through the mid-90s, and that no longer appeals to me (mainly because I don’t like the training required for the bike stage). Something involving swimming, or swimming and running together (“aquathlons”), is a possibility.
Copyright © Dana Honeycutt, Objective Motifs, 2013