Training for the Marine Corps Marathon

While recovering from Ironman Korea I was mulling over what to do next. A friend, Viwe Mtshontshi, was running the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) with several others from church and she asked me to pace her. I decided that a marathon would be a nice way to end the season but rather than pace her I would try and qualify for Boston with a 3:30. I had run the MCM in 2003 and done 3:43 so with my residual fitness a 3:30 would be within the (remote) realm of possibility. And I mean very remote. After all, I only has six weeks to train.

The MCM is a very popular marathon and it was sold out. However, you are allowed to do transfers until late September so there was hope. One disadvantage to working at the World Bank is that while you may plan for a race it may transpire that you are traveling when it happens. I sent a note out to the Bank’s running club and received several offers from people who would be traveling. After sorting out with organizers how to do the transfer from Urumqi, I was all set. I hoped that six weeks to train for it was enough time to get back to race fitness after my post-Ironman idle period. If it wasn’t I would adjust my goal time the day of the race from 3:30 to something more achievable. After all, you can only do as well as you can on the day of the race.

Unfortunately, as I returned from China I managed to get: (i) food poisoning in France; (ii) bad jet lag; and, (iii) a horrible cold. This knocked me out from training for almost two weeks. When I finally could get around to training  an old injury also began to act up. Not to worry, for by bringing together four key elements I was optimistic that I could do the MCM and have a respectable time–if not my goal time:

  • The plan: A sensible training plan which would get me to the stage where I could do a marathon with only some 4 weeks remaining from my original 6 to train for it.
  • The physical therapist: I was having some problems with my left ankle and calf muscle so he worked on my leg to keep me going.
  • The massage therapist: He worked on the rest of me!
  • Training runs: An attempt to implement the plan, given the condition of my body and the contributions of my therapists!

The Plan

For a first cut of a training plan, I used the Runner’s World ‘Smart Coach’ program to get a training schedule.  This is a very good site as it gives quite a sensible program without too much volume or intensity. I’ve seen other sites which give way too much and could lead to injury. You put in a recent race time, how much you want to train, how long you have, the race length, and it then gives you the target workouts.

Taking their recommended schedule, I tweaked it a bit since I needed to increase the run a bit more than they had. I suppose it was thrown by someone wanting a 4 week marathon training program, since their longest run was only 16 miles. I changed it to have a 20 miler which I programed in a week before the race. Yes, I know that one needs to taper but I had to get some miles under my legs and the only way to that was to skip the taper.

The program had two easy runs a week, my Tuesday one was short – about 6 miles – and my Sunday one was long. ON Thursday I did about 6 miles which was either a tempo run at 7:27 or speed work at 7:02. I set myself the goal of four long runs of 14, 17, 20 and 20 miles.

The Physical Therapist

I have a very long relationship with my Physical Therapist (PT) Art Sansone. I was impressed the first time I went there and he told me that the pain in my foot was actually due to my back. Right. I may be an engineer but I at least know the difference between the two. However, within a short time he had cured the problem and literally got me back on my feet. Since then I’ve gone to him too many times, but each time he patiently puts me back together again. A former competitive swimmer and dancer, he knows that you don’t tell people like me to do nothing, instead, he gives a sensible exercise/stretching program and closely monitors your progress.

I had three problems we needed to work on. The first was the pain in my tendon on the top of my foot. I had ‘cured’ it using bunion pads to run and Art said that the best was to leave it to heal since my solution was working. The other two were more problematic.

My left ankle was ‘locking up’ slightly which made it uncomfortable to run. By doing manipulation of the ankle Art was able to loosen it quite a bit. He also showed me a way of doing it myself. Over the four weeks I made great progress, although it was unpredictable when it would pop up.

A bigger problem was a tear in my calf muscle. It was particularly bothersome since it would sometimes flare up without my doing anything to cause it. Art used deep tissue massage and other techniques and over time it settled down nicely.

The Massage Therapist

One thing that I’ve learned is that a regular sports massage goes a long way towards preventing injury. Every week Paul would come by and give his best shot at making me cry ‘mercy’. Glad that I didn’t need to do anything after his treatments! Although I found it painful, he worked marvels with my tight, stiff body and kept me going.

Training Runs

So we had the plan and the support team, now all I had to do was to get out and run. Fortunately, we were having an ‘Indian Summer’ here in D.C. so the weather was ideal – if not a bit too hot.

After doing my two ‘short’ runs in the first week I went out for my long run on Sunday. I went west along the W&OD trail, with a goal of 14 miles at 8:45 pace. Should have been 8:54 but I needed to get back into things quickly. The outward run had a lot of uphill and my calf muscle was acting up, nothing too serious so I would regularly stop and give it a good stretch. It was good to be out for a long run again, except the insensitive idiots on their bikes detracted from the pleasure. The majority don’t have the courtesy to call out and warn you that they are about to pass. These the Lance Wannabies are also too good to invest in a bell.

On the return my calf and ankle both began to act up quite a bit. Finally around mile 7.5 I decided that this was not good for me so I whipped out my cell phone and called Lis. She is very well programed and when she heard me on the end of the line she didn’t say hello but “What’s wrong”. Nothing too serious I told her, asking her to come and collect me in the car. I was consoled by a very nice chocolate chip ice cream on the way home, as well as the fact that I was seeing Art the next day.

Art did his usual magic and Tuesday I did an easy pace 6 mile run into work.  Things were looking up By Thursday of the following week and I had a good 5 mile tempo run. After another visit to Art I was ready to try for my 17 mile run. I went off and it was a beautiful morning. I ran south to Shirlington and then east to the Potomac river. Then North before crossing the river to D.C. I would then go around the Jefferson monument, past Abe Lincoln, before returning to the Virginia side of the river and heading home.

The run went well except as it progressed I began to get quite warm. One problem with the route is the lack of places to get drinks. As I approached D.C. I came across the ‘Army 10 Miler’ which was underway. This was great as the streets were closed in D.C. By the time I got back to Virginia I was warm and as I headed into the hills I began to labor. After 15 miles I decided that I had nothing to prove so out came the cell phone, for a repetition of last week with Lis collecting me in the car. This is not a good start for training. I took some consolation that the Army 10 Miler reported a number of runners with heat problems-in fact one died-but I can’t keep on using that as an excuse for poor performance.

The following week another 6 mile run to work and then a very good speed work session. The schedule called for 2 miles @ 7:27 but I did 3 @ 7:10 and felt really good. Art and Paul’s work was paying off as the discomfort levels were well down. But what about these problematic Sunday runs?

This Sunday was a 20 mile run, at 8:57. I decided that if I was going to try and knock off the MCM in two weeks at 8:00 pace, I needed to give it a serious go. To that end I decided to do this 20 at 8:30 pace as a make or break workout. To avoid the previous week’s problem I took a hydration pack as well as several gels. I would run through the same nutrition scheme I would use in the actual race.  The map below shows the route I took and the run went almost to perfection. The leg was fine, I did it in exactly 8:30 and felt good at the end. The map below shows the route I took.


The next week was another easy run to work, visits to Art and Paul, a tempo run and then my last long run. My triathlon training partner Taneen was concerned about my lack of tapering and made me promise to go no faster than 9 minute miles. Jerry from work gave me even better advice. He said that I should aim for 10 minute miles as this would give me the almost the same time on my feet (3:20) as I would be running the following week. In his view that was more important. So that’s what I did. And it was HARD. I followed the same route as the week before, but keeping the speed down to exactly 10:00 per mile. It sounds crazy but I found it more difficult than the previous week with 8:30’s. And just to prove it to Taneen – here is my heart rate history for the run. I didn’t hit my aerobic threshold once, and it was almost all done at the top of Zone 2, low Zone 3.


During the week before the race I tapered so just some cycling. I wanted to do a couple of short runs, but they didn’t eventuate – except for one where I jogged home from the metro. Jerry and I decided to visit the Smithsonian to see the Edward Hopper exhibit instead.

The Thursday before the race I had a final visit with Art and he fiddled with my leg. Both are so much better after his treatments that I’m confident they will go the distance. Now the key question is will I be able to?

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