How I Ran a Sub-4 Hour Marathon

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You might have heard on our last podcast episode that I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon in 3:54:15.

A sub-4 hour marathon is not remarkable as far as finishing times go. I’m a middle of the pack runner. (I finished 597 out of 2633).

But I did run 37 minutes faster than my best time . . . which is remarkable for me.

And it was actually easier than I thought it would be. Much easier than running my first marathon.

Here are a few tricks I used to keep my run under 4 hours.

 

Have it in the Bank
I was more intentional in my marathon training this time. I stuck to the killer marathon training plan Angie designed for me which included tempo runs, hill runs, yoga, cross-training, and a few 20 milers.

I spent many days training on hills at a place I’ve come to love called The General Watkins Conservation Area. Watkins has a 5 mile loop with many lung busting hills. This loop became my leafy lap track.

By the time I got to New Orleans, a place devoid of hills, I was ready to run fast. I had the fitness in the bank.

The Things You Tell Yourself
Fitness is only one component of running a strong race. You must have mental toughness to push yourself through the latter miles of a marathon. This is where your mantras and mind tricks are especially important.

The fun begins at mile 20. This is when my strength is feeling spent and I desire to stop and walk. The closer to the finish line I get the stronger this desire becomes. The last mile is the most torturous. It is paradoxical to be so close yet feel so tempted to slow down.

I saw people walking the last mile of the marathon. And since I finished under 4 hours I know that these people had to run the first 25 miles.

The only way I kept running was to tell myself, “Are you crazy!? Don’t walk when you only have one mile to go. Grind it out! Grind it out! Grind it out! Grrrr!”

Stoking the Furnace
As my body burned energy to propel me forward I had an arsenal of fueling products to replace calories and electrolytes. I have learned what my body needs through trial and error – working out the particulars on my long training runs.

All total I consumed 4 gels, 8 Perpetuem Solids, 24 Endurolyte caps, some pretzels, and about 65 oz. of water. This picture shows some of the fuel I need to run 20+ miles (minus the fruit in the background).

When I posted this pic to our Facebook page a few weeks ago some people were aghast.

20milefuel

“Do you need a pack animal for all of this?”

“This all is unnecessary. I hope you’re not telling ppl this is how to train.”

“Who convinced you that 18 electrolyte pills are necessary to prevent cramping on a three hour run? You’re ingesting enough salts in your other foods to prevent that.”

Settle down ladies and gentlemen. I don’t run with a pack animal (I am the pack animal). And yes, we do tell people to train this way, sort of. You should do what works for your body. And as far as the electrolyte pills go, Steve Born at Hammer Nutrition says some runners may need to take up to 6 an hour. That’s me.

Angie doesn’t take any electrolytes. But I can’t get by without taking lots of them. Today I ran a 14 miler with no Endurolytes. I forgot them. By mile seven my legs were wasted. Not a stellar long run.

[Update: I have since adopted a high fat low carb diet and am using a different fueling strategy. Please see this post for details about running a sub-four hour marathon as a fat adapted runner]

Watching Your Time
The final trick has to do with awareness of time. I had to keep my pace safely hovering around 8:50 per mile.

I had to consciously run slower in the first half so as to conserve my strength for the latter miles. I had to pick up my feet as the marathon wore on because I frequently fell off pace.

I arranged my playlist so I would hear my best running songs during the final hour. I didn’t linger long at aid stations. I didn’t stop to use the porta potty until I found one without a queue. I took so few walk breaks that . . . a three fingered man could count them on one hand.

My time was my responsibility. There were no pacing groups at the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon. Angie was back in corral 12. It was just me, alone with my Garmin -fighting to conserve every minute. Live by the Garmin. Die by the Garmin.

In Conclusion
It feels fantastic to have made it to the finish line of another marathon alive. Completing it in less than four hours is the cherry on top. If I was 60 years old my finishing time could qualify me for the Boston Marathon!

Breaking four hours will hopefully be one of many milestones in my life as a runner. Now I’m wondering if I can hit 3:45?

If you have a time goal for your next race . . . train hard, have confidence, and go for it! We are here to help you succeed.

 

22 Responses to How I Ran a Sub-4 Hour Marathon

  1. John March 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    Great work Trevor and I really appreciate you sharing your insights. I am aiming for my first 4.00 hour marathon at this years Gold Coast Marathon in Australia and this article provides me with a lot of the information I was looking for during my preparation leading up to the race.

    Congratulations for your wonderful achievement.

    John
    RunDisney Fitness Team

  2. Trevor March 5, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Thanks for the comment John. Gold Coast Marathon sounds like my kind of race! Maybe someday Angie and I will tour Australia. Good luck on breaking 4 hours.

  3. Andrew March 5, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    Thanks for the inspiration Trevor. I’ve never been able to break the 4 hour barrier in a marathon, my best time remains at 4:02:24 in the 2011 Portland Marathon. I know I have it in me to do a sub-4 hour marathon; I think my problem is that after completing a few marathons I now know I will have no problem completing the marathon, so it’s that attitude that lets me slack off in my training.

    • Trevor March 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      You are close to 4:00 and you know what you need to do. I think you’re going to hit it!

  4. Lisa March 6, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    Thankyou for sharing the above, Trevor. You are truly an inspiration. I am currently training for my first marathon….Gold Coast Australia in July. I have a running plan, but not a nutrition plan, so that is something I really need to start working on. I am also trying to work out a balance between anaerobic training and aerobic training. Like you I incorporate hills, speed work and long runs, doing 4 runs a week but need to work on strength training as well. Ah, it all takes time. Oh, and congratulations on an awesome time and PB!

    • Trevor March 6, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Wow! Another person running the Gold Cost Marathon. Do you know John? Thanks for stopping by the blog Lisa, and good luck on training for your first marathon.

  5. Te'ena March 6, 2013 at 1:07 am #

    Congratulations on another finished marathon and a GREAT finishing time!!!

    I am getting ready to do my first full marathon in Tel Aviv next week, and of course my main goal is just to finish, but I can’t stop myself from also constantly thinking of a time-goal and a pacing plan to go with it. Have been looking at the MARCO marathon calculator at feelrace.com. It looks pretty good.
    Thank you for your input, and especially for the mental strategies. I have a feeling I am going to really need them!! :)

    And again, – thanks to you and Angie for your podcasts and for this site, – you are of great help and inspiration to many, among them me! :)

    • Trevor March 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Hi Te’ena, we are excited for you! Thanks for being a member of the Academy. Be sure to email Angie with any pre-race questions or concerns that you have. You are going to do great!

  6. Line March 6, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    Thanks for sharing, Trevor, and congrats on an amazing PR and most of all a well run race. I finished my second marathon in November. 4:00:33. I know exactly where I lost those seconds, that I wasn’t watching my time properly and that I lacked the mentally toughness the last miles. However, I was very happy with PRing with over 20 minutes. Also I had great experience running a very even pace throughout. In less then 5 weeks I am doing my third marathon. Though my training has been a little less this time, I hope pacing and mentall toughness with PR me with 34 seconds. Then and planning a great winterless training period and going for sub 3:50 in November again:)

    • Trevor March 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

      Thanks Line. Good luck on your third marathon! You can shave off 34 seconds and get below 4:00. Keep taking action.

  7. Elspeth March 31, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Wow Trevor, that was inspiring – thanks for sharing your tips.
    I’m working on breaking 4 hours in May, using the MTA programme, and did my first 20 miles of the training yesterday, in 2 hours 56. It’s great to know how you did it. Thank you for that post and everything!
    Elspeth in Edinburgh, Scotland.

  8. Mike April 21, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    That is fantastic advice Trevor. Having run my first marathon (Rome, lovely, do it if you can) in a less-than-earth-shattering 4:57, and being generally rather overweight and, (then 46), middle-aged (not much I can do about the latter, and it’s getting worse) I was surprised to shave more than 35 minutes off this time on my second race a year later (last year, Tel Aviv).
    Even more surprised to fund that running a marathon in 4:20 was actually far, far less painful than it was the first time. In fact, for the last five miles or so I was kicking myself that I had set off so slowly. By then it was too late to hope for a sub-4hr but the fact I was even thinking such crazy thoughts …. 3:59:59 … possible?

  9. Paul April 29, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    Some good advice there Trevor thanks,

    I just completed the 2013 London Marathon last week with a time of 3.57 so I just scraped it this year, that was my 4th london but my 6th marathon, I’ve also done New York and Brighton, UK. My first marathon ( London 07 ) I set a target time of 4.30 for myself and came in 4.29.28, then like you had a massive very unexpected improvment in my time the following year when I completed New York 08 in 3.52, since then I’ve always managed to get a sub 4 and set my PB in London 2010 finishing 3.47. What I have found is to gain these improvement I stepped my training up another level in terms of av. distance run per week in train, maxin out before taper down at about 60 miles in my final week training, I never do speed work or intervals in my personal training but what I do do is enter as many local races as possible that fit in with my training schedule, plus run with others when possible, ie. in a club, you always push harder then. Before the big day I always now do a depletion diet the week before the event to make make sure my body is fuelled to the max. On race day I keep a close eye on my times and set myself certain targets during the race, the main one being getting to the 20 mile marker before 3hrs, this for me is a very important target, if you’re over 3hrs at 20 it’s very unlikely to can pull that time back to get in under 4hrs, but if you get through the 20 in under 3hrs then it gives you a great boost psychologically to know you have an hour plus to complete the last 10k. This is my method and thoughts, it’s not for everyone but it works for me, cheers, Paul.

  10. Marian Cosgrove May 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    I just finished my first marathon in 4:22. I was wondering what your history was as far as finishing times. I’m proud of my 4:22 but if you can break four hours, so can I! Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Sara Craig July 7, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    Congrats on your sub-4. I appreciate all your training tips and advice. I am sitting right on the other side with a PR of 4:01:19. Was right on track at MCM ’13 but at mile 24 hit the wall HARD. Was dizzy, vision blurred, head ache…..seriously thought I needed medical attention. Wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, but knew it wasn’t good. Walked it out, hydrated, fueled slowly…..and pushed it in and felt a little better by mile 25. I remember thinking, “My legs feel great, I could keep running if I didn’t think I’d fall over.” Lost some serious time on that mile, but survived and didn’t need the medical tent. I am training for Portland ’13, added speed work, hills and long runs are over rolling hills. Really concentrating on fine tuning my fueling strategy. Discovered UCAN and so far having great success feeling strong with even blood sugar levels on the long runs. So far, so good……Thanks again for your encouragement and inspiration. I hope to cross the finish line while the clock is still posting the third hour.

    • Trevor October 10, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

      You can do it! Make yourself drink water every mile especially in warmer weather.

  12. David October 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    I am late on my post, but I was researching “how to run a sub 4 hour marathon” on google, and I came across this post.

    Trevor – how did you feel when you crossed the finish line…aside from the feeling the joy of running a sub 4hr marathon?

    I’m training for the Surf City marathon (February 4, 2014 – Huntington Beach, CA), and I’m hoping to break the 4 hr barrier.

    • Trevor October 10, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      I felt like immediately sitting down -which is exactly what I did. I got back to the hotel and took a cold bath. Later that night I was walking around the French Quarter feeling pretty good but definitely able to tell that I ran a marathon earlier that day. No injuries and no regrets. Thanks for reading this post David and good luck on your sub 4 hour goal!

  13. Patrick March 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Thanks so much for the article. Just finished (phew!) the Phoenix marathon – I ran way to fast early so second half I was a mess! Going to follow a lot of the advice you gave in preparation for Colfax marathon in Denver. 4 hour marathon in my goal for the year. Its going to happen :)

    • Trevor Spencer March 7, 2014 at 11:29 am #

      I like your positive attitude Patrick! Thanks for stopping by the blog and congrats on finishing the Phoenix Marathon.

  14. Sarah, Simply Cooked August 23, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    I recently ran my first marathon with a 4:47 time in Kuching, Malaysia. Do you think that a 4:00 marathon is a similarly good goal for a woman or should I aim for 4:15, perhaps, in my next outing? Thanks for the inspiring post and the care you show for everyone with questions.

    • Trevor Spencer August 25, 2014 at 11:47 am #

      Yes! 4:00 is an attainable time for anyone. But you will probably need to build up to that speed. It’s pretty hard to set a 47 minute PR unless you put in a lot of intense training. If I were you I would aim for 4:15 first. :)

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