Friday, October 10, 2014


In marathoning, as in life, patience is a virtue.  If you analyze the tactics in the elite races at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon this past weekend, it reveals the value of being patient.  Both men's winner Tyler Pennel and women's champ Esther Erb, as well as Masters winners Mbarak Hussein and Sheri Piers know that the key to the marathon is acknowledging that it is an exercise in energy management.

That's not to say that running any other distance, be it a mile or an ultra, doesn't reward that same diligence.  Training, resting, and apportioning one's stored reserves isn't only important in a marathon, but rather that the marathon perhaps best illustrates the necessity of properly managing your resources.  If offers the most temptation to make the common mistake of running too fast, too soon.

If you've trained well, are healthy and rested, the early miles of a marathon can seem easy, lull one into thinking that the 26.2 mile journey will not be that difficult.  The reality being that if you give in to the temptation use your energy to go fast in the beginning, you'll often pay a steep price to get to the finish line.

Pennel was a rookie.  Twin Cities was his first marathon.  He was the fastest in the field in terms of a half marathon time, so he could easily have adopted a strategy to separate himself from his competition earlier in the race, but his plan was to run relaxed.  To get to 20 miles expending the least amount of energy he could to stay in contact with the leaders.  If anything the early pace was too slow.

Pennel could probably have run a faster time on Sunday, but his main objective was to win the race, not run a fast time.  Hussein had a dual agenda going into the race. The 49 year-old wanted to take a shot at the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 2:18:00 and, first and foremost, he wanted to defend his US and TCM titles, win both for the fifth time.

To have a shot at a 2:18, Hussein knew he probably had to run the first half under 1:09, as the hills in the latter part of the race make negative splitting a daunting task.  Masters phenom at the shorter distances, Kevin Castille figured to be Hussein's main rival.  While setting Masters records at the shorter distances, Castille has not yet mastered the marathon distance.  He and Hussein battled last year with Hussein coming out on top.  This year Castille wanted to reverse that result.

Castille also wanted to take a shot at 2:18 and he went out faster than Hussein, who kept on his timetable of going under 1:09(he passed the 13.1 mile halfway point in 1:08:56).  "I could see the leaders up ahead," Hussein said.  "I thought I might be going to fast, but instead they were going too slow."  Indeed some were as they passed the halfway point a little more than a minute in front of Hussein in 1:07:48.

Pennel was in front of a pack of around a dozen runners that went past 10K in around 32:23.  Pennel wasn't pushing the pace, but rather keeping it "honest."  Others had told him that the race really started around 20 miles.  At that point the waiting was over, and Pennel would run the last 10K around 30:50, but he wasn't the aggressor at first. Instead third place finisher Scott Smith was antsy and decided to put in a "fast mile" in an attempt to break up the lead pack that had shrunk by only one runner since the half marathon mark.

Smith transformed the dash to the finish into a solo race as Pennel opened a six second gap by mile 21.  Smith may have gone a little too fast in his effort to break up the pack or keep up with Pennel when he made his move as he faded significantly in the last two miles after runner-up Jared Ward passed him.  Ward would finish 40 seconds ahead of  Smith. Pennel and women's race winner Erb both negative split the last half of the race, Erb running splits of 1:17:30 and 1:16:30, Pennel 1:07:48 and 1:05:44.

Women's runner up Heather Lieberg and third place finisher Brianne Nelson had pushed the pace from the beginning, going through the half in 1:16:49, 42 seconds up on Erb.  Erb went into the race focused on a seemingly odd single goal.  She wanted to run the last mile fast.  She didn't ignore the rest of the distance, but something she had learned in her prior attempts at the marathon was that, like Shalane Flanagan who failed in  her attempt to break the US marathon record in Berlin a week prior to Twin Cities, being able to finish strong was something they both had to work on.

Erb ran the TC race conservatively, and took the same approach as Pennel of focusing on the last 10K.  That almost ran into difficulty as Erb had to take a bathroom break around mile 20.  She didn't panic, however, or try and do too much too soon. She gradually began to catch Lieber and Nelson, gaining about 10 seconds a mile through mile 24.  Another ten second gain in that mile brought Erb even with the duo and then Erb ripped off a 5:31 last mile to pull away to a lead of eight seconds at the finish over Lieberg, who was still running strong, but not as strong as Erb.

What all this illustrates is that the marathon is not about instant gratification.  Good things come to those who are patient...And know how to manage their energy.  Patience isn't just holding back or waiting.  In running patience is, at least partially, a product of the accumulated knowledge one gets from training, racing, and coping with the various challenges the sport provides.  All runners learn lessons daily that define for each of them what it means to be patient.  Or to define the word another way patience is the ability to run not only fast but to run smart.

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