What I learned: Pfitzinger 18/70 and my first marathon cycle

Whenever someone finds out I’m a runner, they ask if I’ve ever run a marathon. I may have run that far back in college, when I frequently did long wandering runs on boring Sunday afternoons. That was long before the GPS era, even before google maps. My only good way to figure out how far I went was to retrace my route using the trip odometer in my car - if I could remember each and every turn.

Truthfully, the marathon distance has never interested me that much. I like running fast, and I don’t see much of a point in running a race if I’m not going to run at a pace I’m going to be happy with. If I can’t finish a race under 7 minutes per mile, I feel like it’s a waste of time.

In spring of 2019, I started taking running more seriously than I had in the recent past. My weekly mileage was higher (and consistent), and I was running faster for longer. By the end of the year, I had run a 5K under 19 minutes for the first time since high school, set a satisfying 10K PR of 38:46, and was beating my half marathon PR (TBF my only half marathon race was done with almost no training and I was fairly out of shape) in consistently in my long runs.

I had signed up for the Milwaukee Marathon half during the early bird registration window, mostly because it was inexpensive, convenient, and had some nice swag. I figured 1:25 would be a decent goal, and figured I’d try following a structured plan for the first time in my life. I decided on Pete Pfitzinger’s 12 week, max 63 miles-per-week plan from his book Faster Road Racing, which looked hard enough to keep me interested. While building up my base in preparation for it, I went for a tempo run that ended up going a bit longer than I intended, but it felt really good. I averaged 6:52 over 10 miles (including a mile warm-up), a pace which would put me right around a 2:59 marathon. That sounded cool, something I could be proud of. I waited a couple weeks before officially switching my registration, but in reality my mind was made up then - I was going to do my first marathon.

I decided on following Pfitz’ 18 week, 70 mpw plan, though in this case I’d essentially be jumping in at week 3. The book recommends a base of at least 45 mpw before starting the plan. I was close, but not quite there:

Base Mileage

Week 3 called for a total of 58 miles, a huge jump from my 42 the previous week. That kind of jump would be a bad idea, and I expected to take a few weeks to play catch-up. I got 52 miles in that week, followed by weeks of 54 (out of 62) and 60 (out of 63). I was doing pretty well - I was hitting the prescribed paces on my long and medium-long runs, and did pretty well on my two lactate threshold runs. Week 5 was capped with an 18 mile long run with 10 at race pace - as my luck would have it, this came right in the middle of a big snowstorm. Instead of running it in a lightweight trainer, I wore my Hoka Speedgoats, as I placed some value on not slipping and falling. This one was tough - I managed to keep it under 7:05 (Boston qualifying pace for my age group), but only managed a single mile split at goal pace. But hey, snow, ice and trail shoes are not a recipe for speed.

The plan was hard, and it was only getting harder. On the following pull-back week, I did not pull back far enough, and flubbed my next threshold run. I had to give myself a couple extra easy days, but bounced back with a solid do-over on the threshold run, and my first successful full loop around Lake Mendota! I finished the 21.5 mile run with the biggest fist pump of all time as I paused my watch at the end to see a 7:59 average. Woo, arbitrary milestones!

Base Mileage

I had heard experienced marathoners talk about cumulative fatigue, and I was definitely starting to feel it here. I was starting to force myself to pull back a bit on some training runs, and try to save it for the key workouts. I absolutely nailed my next threshold run, which included a near-PR 39:00 10K split, but had to cut the following long run short, despite being a bit slow. The next race pace long run was in blizzard conditions again, and even though I had to wear trail shoes again, I was faster than the last one. I averaged 7:01 per mile, but I really felt like I would have been close to goal pace in good conditions.

VO2Max & Tune-Up Races

By this point, each long run was feeling like more and more of a struggle. Earlier on, I was finishing these runs in the 7:30s without much trouble. By now, it was feeling like a 7:40 pace was ranging anywhere from wiping me out, to completely out of the question. But often, I had to dial it back even further in order to hit the hard workouts. I never looked forward to easy days as much as I was right here.

Week 12 marked the first of three tune-up races. I wanted to find a half-marathon, but there weren’t any nearby. Instead, I did a 13.1 mile time trial on my own. I plotted out a loop around Lake Monona consisting of primarily bike paths and quiet residential streets. My plan was to start out at a 6:40-6:45 pace, and pick things up if I was feeling good. I settled into a nice groove around 6:35 per mile, and managed to maintain that until I hit the more hilly portion of the route. It was probably not even a 100% all-out race effort, but a consistent effort, and a result I was happy with. Strava had me at 1:26:52, good enough for a 17 minute PR.

Half Marathon Time Trial

The next week was to be my final race pace long run. I also had two midweek medium-longs. The time trial left me feeling very confident, and wondering if I had turned a corner in my fitness. While my 1:26:52 translates to a 3:01 full according to Jack Daniels’ VDOT, I felt like the combination of Magic Shoes, a true taper, and race day adrenaline could have knocked at least a minute off that time and probably more. I approached week 13 with a Rex Grossmanesque attitude. I went hard in those medium-longs, which actually felt good at the time. Sunday was very windy, but I planned a route that would leave me reasonably shielded. I felt strong early on, seeing faster-than-goal-pace mile splits on my watch…6:44, 6:42, 6:44, 6:44, 6:41…as I pushed through the rolling hills along Lake Mendota’s south shore.

What I didn’t realize is that by this time, my heart rate was above lactate threshold. It shouldn’t have been - during my time trial last week, it was about 10 bpm less despite running at a slightly slower pace. But it was. Maybe it was the hills, maybe it was the wind, maybe it was the lack of recovery. Or maybe a little from columns A, B and C. By mile 7, my pace was starting to slip. I was giving it everything I had to maintain 6:55. The wind was in my face. My shoe was too tight. My mouth was too dry to get another gel down. After 10 race pace miles (and by now, approaching max heart rate), I deciced to stop. The 3 mile jog of shame back home left me feeling angry and frustrated.

Upon reflection, it was easy to see how this happened. Week 12, before the time trial, was relatively easy. Week 13 was hard. I went out too fast. I wasn’t recovered from the half OR the midweek runs. There were lots of hills. Given all this, my blowup probably wasn’t as bad as I initially thought, but I was starting to feel like I wouldn’t hit my goal.

Meanwhile, races around the world were getting canceled and postponed due to coronavirus paranoia. Milwaukee was still on, and had posted on their Facebook page that they did not intend to cancel at this time. Despite that reassurance, I got the feeling it was only a matter of time. I did ok on a light interval workout to start off week 14, but I was sore. Really sore. Wednesday’s medium-long became an easy 8 miles, which was about all I felt capable of. I took Thursday off, and then the race was officially cancelled Friday. I was both upset and relieved. I went home and burned off every ounce of energy left in my body, running 9 miles at a 6:57 pace. Too slow to be a speed workout, too short for much aerobic benefit. Just enough to drain me without much benefit, or what the cool kids call junk miles. Stupid and glorious.

What I learned

They say the first mile is a lie. In terms of marathon training cycles, the first few weeks are a lie. Cumulative fatigue is real. While I think the Pfitz 18/70 plan was a good choice, I’m not sure After stewing on this a bit, I have a few ideas on how to make the next attempt go better…

  • Build a stronger base. My 40ish mpw was not enough, I felt like it took a month to really get comfortable with the load. Next time, I want to have at least 4-5 weeks of 50mpw, and preferably close to 60.
  • Take recovery seriously. I knew this - or rather, I figured it out quickly - and kept telling myself this, but “it felt good at the time” was my mantra. Next time, I will circle two workouts per week to focus on, and take it easy on the rest.
  • The plan is a guideline and not a strict schedule. Don’t be afraid of rearranging and rescheduling workouts. Get the miles in, but if it’s a shitty day for your marathon pace run, do it after the snow gets cleared.
  • Do strength work. The plan doesn’t specifically tell you to do much of this as part of your running workouts until the late stages. That’s not really a criticism of the plan, as the book does tell you to do cross training on your off days and has some good supplementary routines to follow, but it’s up to you to fit these in. My suggestion: if you find yourself missing these supplementary workouts, you need to work hill repeats, strides, or both into some of your runs. I feel like my form started to fall apart toward the end, and I think the biggest factor there was missing my weekly hill day. Before beginning the plan, I had been doing one workout of either hill repeats or a fartlek-style run up a bunch of big hills in my area. While my long runs generally incorporated a fair amount of elevation game, I don’t think this had the same effect.

When will my next shot at a marathon be? Who knows. As I said before, I’ve never been that interested in the distance. At 37 years old, I still think I have enough speed in my legs to do well at shorter distances. It is still something I want to do one day. I would love to qualify for Boston, or as I like to call it, the Hobbyjogger Olympics. And one day, I will. I don’t know if we will have races this fall, or if I’ll be waiting until next year, or beyond that. I will be better prepared next time around, and while I still don’t have a race under my belt, I’ll have experienced the successes and failures of all the work that goes into it. Maybe next time, more success.

Colin Baker Written by:

Colin is a network engineer, amateur/wannabe Porsche mechanic, and elite hobbyjogger in Madison, WI.